Many thought that the 2012 French presidential elections could not have been any more dramatic, with the front runner Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrested in New York for rape charges. Since France will be holding its tight elections in eight weeks, deciding the future of both Europe and what remains of the liberal order, the stakes are high and tension palpable in the markets and elsewhere.
There are two things to know about the French presidency. First, presidents are much more powerful in France than they are in the US as they can and have dissolved other branches of government in the past. This power gives the presidential election a vital importance. Second, French elections are unique in that they are decided in a run-off voting process. People vote among dozens of candidates in the first round, only to be given a choice between the two winners of the first round in a second round of voting. This is critical to understand the dynamics of the coming election as the candidate with the most supporters doesn’t necessarily win.
Marine LePen (Front National) is the clear leader in the polls even though her party has never won the election in 44 years of existence. Her populist nationalist anti-immigration and anti-EU political line rings true with one out of four French voters. If she were to win, she will have a clear mandate to have France exit the European Union and to implement Trump-like policies.
But while Ms. LePen’s large and loyal supporter base all but guarantees that she will win the first round of voting, it remains to be seen whether she will be able to convince voters beyond this group of core supporters to give her a chance in the second round.
The two contenders for the remaining spot on the second round are Emmanuel Macron (En Marche) and Francois Fillon (Republicains). Mr. Macron is a former investment banker who put in place his own political party to run for this election. He is supported by a little more than 20% of French voters, mainly young urban ones, for his socially liberal policies. He is the only unapologetic advocate of Europe, free trade, less regulation and a balanced budget.
Mr. Fillon is a more classical figure and represents the status quo in French politics. He languishes at a third position after being investigated for misuse of public money. He is a true Christian conservative, advocating state reforms and family values. Many see him as France’s Margaret Thatcher, which is not always a compliment.
Ms. LePen and Mr. Macron plan on revolutionizing French politics in different directions, ending decades of a two party system. The mere fact that they are leading in the polls suggests that business as usual will not be an option after this election. France will most likely either embark on a mission to consolidate its position in Europe and revitalize its job market or will exit the European Union with all the risks that that entails.