Date first published: 20/04/2017

Key sectors: all

Key risks: political stability

The outcome of France’s upcoming 28 April first-round presidential election will likely be very tight, with all the first four contenders having significant changes of reaching the run-off. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon has surged dramatically in polls in recent weeks, raising the real possibility of a run-off vote featuring Melenchon and Marine Le Pen. The latest poll shows Melenchon receiving 20 per cent of votes, in the third place and neck-and-neck with Republican candidate Francois Fillon. The two leading candidates, the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron both score 22 per cent, only two points ahead of Melenchon. However, only two-thirds of Melenchon and Macron’s supporters are certain of their vote. Given the trend in polling, a run-off between Melenchon and Le Pen cannot be ruled out, a result that would all but guarantee major political turmoil in the EU, regardless of the winner. Such a result would turn the Fifth Republic’s two-round electoral system, historically the guarantor of stability in France, into arguably its greatest threat.

Melenchon has largely eaten away support from the Socialist’s Benoit Hamon, who already represents the left-wing of the Socialist party. The pair had earlier held talks on combining their campaigns and while these ended without agreement, the discussions demonstrate the continued, and growing, viability of the far-left in France even as the far-right has seen unprecedented growth. With Macron seen as the stability candidate, the narrowing of space in the political centre is a major concern.

Melenchon is a relative unknown outside of France but, as with Le Pen, brings the risk of France exiting the EU. One of his demands, ending the independence on the ECB and allowing it to fiscally fund the public spending of member states is non-negotiable for other EU members. His demands would require the scrapping of the principles laying at the EU’s foundation. Melenchon presents as much a risk to the bloc as the openly pro-‘Frexit‘ Le Pen.

Le Pen has led the polls since January and has been neck-and-neck with Macron since March. Le Pen advocates protectionist and anti-immigration policies, including renegotiating France’s EU membership and holding a referendum on leaving the EU. Le Pen would pull France out of the single currency. Her policies risk severe repercussions not only for the bloc but also to global financial markets.

Le Pen’s main contender, pro-European Emmanuel Macron represents the centre but positions himself as a reformist candidate, despite close ties to the traditional establishment. However, leading his own new En Marche Party, it is unlikely that he will be backed by a majority in the parliament although he may succeed in gaining support from both the traditional centre-left and centre-right. However, his grassroots youth movement may not translate into votes.

The Fifth Republic’s resilience to extremist candidates has so far been ensured by the two-round voting system, designed especially for this purpose. However, worryingly, France has become polarised by the two anti-system candidates, which raises the real risk of having one of the two radical contenders winning the presidential seat. Amid the weakness of the traditional centre-left and centre-right, Melenchon’s rise, particularly given the unproven viability of Macron and his new centre, means the second round could see a runoff that leaves France choosing between the extreme left and right.