For voters, it is a case of plus ça change — same-old-same-old — after four months during which the leadership battle has dominated the headlines as it veered from scandal to scandal.
France’s presidential election campaign was launched Monday, two weeks before the first round that sees voters faced with an unprecedented choice of 11 candidates.
The official opening of the race means all runners, major or minor, must be given the same airtime on television and radio and the same poster space on the municipal billboards.
With two weeks to go, two of the front-runners are under investigation for fraud, and the traditional socialist and conservative parties who have governed France for more than 50 years are struggling to remain in the race.
The latest polls have the independent Emmanuel Macron, who does not even have his own political party, virtually tied with far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen to win the first-round vote April 23.
The first two go through to a second vote May 7. Benoît Hamon from the governing Socialist Party has been relegated to fifth place, and François Fillon of the official opposition Les Republicains to third.
In an unexpected twist, the charismatic hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is often compared with Bernie Sanders with his anti-capitalist, anti-globalization program, has risen to fourth place and is now slightly ahead of Fillon, unthinkable a few weeks ago.
Never has people’s mistrust in politicians been so high. They are not just skeptical, they have begun to hate politics.
Pascal Perrineau, president of the Sciences-Po university political research center Cevipof, said it was “an election unlike any other,” not least because it is taking place in the state of emergency introduced after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.
“The usual election subjects such as the economic and social situation are preoccupying the French, but as well as these classic themes it’s the first time we have issues of terrorism and immigration worrying voters,” Perrineau told the Anglo-American Press Assn. in Paris.
“Never has people’s mistrust in politicians been so high. They are not just skeptical, they have begun to hate politics. There is a form of rejection; when we ask them what they think the words ‘mistrust’ and ‘disgust’ are the first they use.
“At the same time, people are drawn to what is a fascinating show; so there is rejection and attraction at the same time. We wonder which will win the day. It’s like a television series, like ‘House of Cards.’ If the rejection camp wins, Marine Le Pen will win. If the spectacle side wins it’ll be Macron or Fillon or maybe the left.”
The elimination in primary elections of previously favorite candidates, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime ministers Manuel Valls and Alain Juppé, has made it an “election of massacres,” Perrineau said.
“The only people remaining are those who have been in supporting roles.”
He added it was also the first time the political agenda was “in the hands of judges.”
“This is entirely new,” he said. “We’ve never had an election take place in such an ambiance.”
In January, Fillon was a shoo-in to be France’s next president, but he was hit by accusations he had paid his British-born wife, Penelope, and their two children, Marie and Charles, hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money for jobs that did not exist.
The Penelopegate scandal, as it was known, saw Fillon officially put under investigation by a judge — the nearest thing in France to being indicted. Fillon had said he would withdraw from the election if this happened; instead he denied the charges, accused the government and media of dirty tricks and maintained his candidacy. As a result his popularity plummeted.
Le Pen, standing on an anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-Islam program, is under formal investigation for allegedly using funds she is entitled to as an elected member of the European Parliament to pay for National Front staff, including a personal bodyguard. Le Pen has ignored a summons from the judges and claims she is being victimized.
Le Pen, who has been credited with taking the party away from its racist, anti-Semitic roots, caused a storm on Sunday after insisting France was not responsible for the roundup of French Jews sent to Hitler’s concentration camps in 1944 because the wartime Vichy regime, headed by collaborationist Marechal Philippe Pétain, was a puppet of the Nazis.
Until this latest uproar, Le Pen’s personal popularity had remained stable.
Dominique Reynie, of the political research foundation Fondapol, who stood as a Les Republicains candidate in 2015 regional elections, told the Los Angeles Times the French election was of global importance, particularly given Le Pen’s threat to pull out of the euro and restore the franc as national currency.
“If the euro is weakened it has worldwide consequences,” Reynie said.
The unknown factor, he said, is the up to 50% of 47 million eligible voters who have not decided as well as the 30% who say they will abstain, according to research by Cevipof.
The sense that anything could happen was heightened during a four-hour live TV debate of all 11 presidential candidates last week, when Philippe Poutou, a little-known Ford factory worker standing on an anti-capitalist platform, was hailed star of the evening after he weighed into scandal-hit rivals, telling them: “Fillon? Nothing but affairs; the more one digs the more one smells the corruption and cheating. … It’s the same with Marine Le Pen. They’re pinching from public funds too.” Afterwards, Poutou’s popularity doubled — to 2%.
Reynie told The Times it was important not to underestimate Le Pen.
“Although it is not the most probable hypotheses, we cannot rule out that Le Pen will win. This is a risk. Remember in the U.S. when the dominant view was that Donald Trump would not be elected. Nobody imagined he would win. We must not make the same mistake.”
Jerôme Fourquet of pollster group Ifop said if the predicted second round is between Le Pen and Macron, it would be “a first” in modern France.
“Until now, nobody has succeeded in breaking the left-right cycle. If there is no mainstream right or left candidate in the second round it’s a historic moment.”
But Perrineau would not second-guess the election, saying the situation is too volatile.
“Never forget the French are a people who cut off heads. We did this. Literally.”
Willsher is a special correspondent.