The Cable

3 Things to Watch in the First Round of French Presidential Elections This Weekend

Liberté. Égalité. Who gets to live in the the Élysée.

en marche

Well, mes amis, the first round of French elections is almost here.

It seems like just yesterday we were watching President François Hollande grapple with the reality of having to face his party’s primary with an approval rating of literally four percent. But it was not yesterday. It was in November.

And, mais oui, much more has happened since then.

Hollande ended up not running at all and the remarkably unremarkable Benoît Hamon became the mainstream leftwing party’s candidate.

François Fillon unexpectedly became the center-right candidate, beating out former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and expected favorite Alain Juppé; he was then still more unexpectedly haunted by and charged over allegations that he’d paid his wife and children roughly one million euros to “work” as parliamentary aides.

Emmanuel Macron came out of seemingly nowhere to form his own centrist En Marche (Forward) party, defend the European project, and fend off Russian disinformation. (He’s the only one of the four in the mix who isn’t fawning over Russian President Vladimir Putin.)

Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, has actively courted Putin. But she’s also sought to rebrand and soften her party’s image, all while promising to hold a referendum to take France out of the European Union, saying she would shred the French constitution to refuse education to the children of undocumented immigrants, and denying the French state’s role in the Holocaust.

And then, just this month, far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who eschews traditional media in favor of his own YouTube channel and speaks favorably of Cuba and Venezuela, surged in the polls.

But that, cheris, is in the past, and now we must look to the future that is this Sunday.

Here are three things to watch as the French take to the polls from Paris to Provence.

Turnout: The first and biggest thing to watch will be voter participation, for two main reasons. First, a relatively low turnout rate — which, for French elections, means less than 70-80 percent — means that even with less traditional candidates, French voters are dissatisfied, Pierre Vimont of Carnegie Europe told Foreign Policy. Second, low turnout will probably benefit Le Pen and Fillon, as their likely voters are more likely to turn out for them than Macron or Mélenchon’s are for them (or than anyone is for Hamon), according to EUROPEUM’s Martin Michelot. The Brexit referendum, after all, sneaked through in part thanks to dismal turnout in key parts of London.

Who makes the next round with what: Only two candidates will make it to the second round, to be held May 7. Right now, the four leading candidates — Fillon, Le Pen, Macron, and Mélenchon — are neck and neck. If the first and second place holders emerge a healthy distance ahead of the runners up, a contentious, clear-cut competition can be expected to take place in the two weeks that follow. But if the third and fourth place finishers come in close, then their voters will have a major role to play in the runoff, perhaps as spoilers.

Whether the undecideds decide: There are still somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of voters who have apparently yet to make up their minds. That means that, just days before or on the day of the vote, one of the candidates could take a deciding lead. Which candidate has that good chance is one to watch this Sunday.

Photo credit: JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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