Explainer

French Presidential Election Guide

The electoral system, the candidates, the key issues and the most likely outcomes.

Valérie Pécresse
French Republican party leader Valérie Pécresse reviews an exhibit of French presidents at the Mémorial Charles de Gaulle in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, October 5, 2018 (Facebook/Valérie Pécresse)

The first round of the French presidential election will be held on Sunday. Assuming no candidate wins a majority, the top two candidates will advance to a runoff on April 24.

Polls predict incumbent president Emmanuel Macron will place first in the opening round and win the second round, but the far-right Marine Le Pen and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon aren’t far behind.

Here is everything you need to know.

Electoral system

  • French elections are held in two rounds to make sure winners have majority support.
  • Polls open at 8 AM and close at 6 or 7 PM in villages and towns and 8 PM in cities.
  • 48 million French voters are eligible. Turnout was 77 percent in 2017.
  • Presidents were elected to seven-year terms until 2000, when the term was shortened to five years, matching the mandate of the National Assembly. Presidential and legislative elections have since been held in the same year to avoid divided government (the French call this “cohabitation”).
  • The French presidency is the most powerful in Europe, combining the roles of chief executive and head of state. But there is also a prime minister, who is appointed by the president and who can be dismissed by parliament. The president can make foreign policy on his (no woman has held the post) own, but when the prime minister is of a different party it limits him domestically.

Candidates

Twelve candidates have qualified to compete in the presidential election. Eight are polling at 2 percent or more:

Candidate

Party

Orientation

Emmanuel Macron The Republic on the Move Center
Marine Le Pen National Rally Far right
Jean-Luc Mélenchon France Unbowed Far left
Éric Zemmour Reconquest Far right
Valérie Pécresse Republicans Center-right
Yannick Jadot Europe Ecology – The Greens Center-left
Fabien Roussel Communist Party Far left
Anne Hidalgo Socialist Party Center-left

Key issues

  • Cost of living: Macron extended welfare to one million more households and made dental services, eyeglasses and hearing aids free. He promises the French a one-time, tax-free cheque of up to €6,000 to cope with inflation. Macron and Le Pen would both raise subsidies for single parents. Le Pen would exempt workers under the age of 30 from income tax. Mélenchon and Hidalgo want to raise the minimum wage to over €1,400 per month.
  • Defense: Macron is the driving force behind European defense integration. Mélenchon and Zemmour want to leave NATO. Almost all candidates support higher military spending in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • Energy: Macron wants to build fifty offshore wind farms and six nuclear power reactors, double onshore wind power and increase solar energy output tenfold by 2050. Jadot and Mélenchon would go further to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, but without nuclear.
  • Infrastructure: Le Pen and Mélenchon would renationalize motorways to reduce tolls. Mélenchon also wants to renationalize rail and utilities (currently run by state-owned companies). Jadot would ban short flights where trains are available.
  • Migration: Macron and Pécresse want to simplify asylum procedures. Pécresse would introduce immigration quotas for countries and professions, and condition residency on learning French. Le Pen and Zemmour want asylum seekers to apply abroad rather than in France. Both would end family reunification as a criterion for residence and give native French priority in employment and social housing. Mélenchon is the only major candidate who wants to liberalize immigration laws.
  • Pensions: Macron ended early retirement at the state railway and has proposed to merge France’s 42 public pension schemes into a single, points-based system. Both Macron and Pécresse want to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. Mélenchon would lower it to 60, Hidalgo would keep it at 62.
  • Security: Macron hired 10,000 cops and tightened laws against online hate speech. He has proposed to create 200 new gendarmerie brigades in addition to the 3,600 that exist. Le Pen and Zemmour would bring back mandatory minimum prison sentences. Zemmour wants to deport recidivists with dual nationality.
  • Taxes: Macron wants to cut €15 billion in taxes, including inheritance tax. Le Pen would abolish inheritance tax only for low and middle incomes. Mélenchon would put a 100-percent tax on inheritances over €12 million, raise tax on incomes over €4,000 per month and reinstate the wealth tax Macron abolished. Zemmour wants to cut €30 billion in business taxes.

Click here for a more detailed comparison of the candidates’ programs.

Polls

  • Macron has been at or above 25 percent support for more than a year.
  • Le Pen has long been in second place with around 20 percent support.
  • Pécresse and Zemmour got bumps in the polls after announcing their candidacies only to fall back to around 10 percent support each — in Pécresse’s case apparently to Macron’s benefit, in Zemmour’s case due to his continued support for Vladimir Putin.
  • Mélenchon has enjoyed a late surge at the expense of other left-wing candidates, arguing (credibly) that he is the only leftist with a chance to make the runoff.
  • All other candidates are polling in the single digits.
  • No poll has shown Macron losing the second voting round to any potential rival, although the margin between him and Le Pen has shrunk.

Possible outcomes

The few polls that have been taken for the National Assembly elections in June predict Macron’s party will lose seats to the Republicans on the right and perhaps the Greens and Socialists on the left. That makes the five most likely outcomes, in order of probability:

  1. Macron + center-right majority: Macron’s party allies with the Republicans. Energy and immigration policy shift to the right.
  2. Macron + Republican majority: Republicans claim the prime ministership and more control over domestic policy.
  3. Le Pen + right-wing majority: Le Pen needs the Republicans, who block her protectionist economic proposals.
  4. Mélenchon + center-right majority: Macronists and Republicans unite against a far-left president.
  5. Mélenchon + center-left majority: Macron’s and other center parties join the Greens and Socialists in working with Mélenchon.

Click here to read the five scenarios.

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