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Présidente or Président? Mapping the path to the Elysée

Image Credit: Gouvernement français (Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons)

Walking through the streets of Lyon, France’s third most populous city, obvious signs of the discontent of French voters can be found everywhere. ‘FN, PS - même combat’ (Front Nationale, Parti Socialiste - same fight) is graffitied over Parti Socialiste posters, while just about every Les Republicains poster has the eyes of the scandal-wracked candidate Francois Fillon cut out with X’s.

“It’s the first year when I really have no idea who will win,” one French professor tells me in a classroom discussion. “People have had to put up with Sarkozy and then Hollande for ten years. They’re sick of it.” It is true that current French President François Hollande is popularly thought of as the least popular president of all time, having the unfortunate honour of being the first president in the history of the Fifth Republic to not seek re-election. Hollande’s party too is fractured, with former Prime Minister and Socialist presidential hopeful Manuel Valls deciding to back maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron rather than the official party candidate, Benoît Hamon.

As the first round of voting for the French Presidential Election draws closer, opinion polls tighten and three hour long debates liven up prime time TV, a clear result seems as far from ever from the minds of French electors. In the past, opinion polls have been a relatively safe way of guessing the outcome, but after the experience of the United States last year, polls are being observed with more sceptical eyes.

At the time of writing, the latest poll has the centrist, pro-EU Macron tied at the top with the far right’s Marine Le Pen on 25 percent. Notably absent from the top two positions are the established major centre-left and centre-right parties, the Parti Socialiste and Les Republicains - fifth and third respectively. Perhaps the most important figure in the poll however is the Absention/Protest/Spoilt vote number, which has a stunningly high 34 percent. To put this into perspective, the majority of polls the month of the election in 2012 put this number between 10 and 20 percent.

So what does such a high percentage of people who are dissatisfied mean for the results? First, that it is not inconceivable to imagine that France will have its first female president in Marine Le Pen. High levels of dissatisfaction play well for her far-right Front National party, which has always been a party for the disaffected. Second, that a cohabitation - when the prime minister and president are from different political parties - is more likely than not. Macron’s party En Marche! was only established last year and is unlikely to have enough electoral support to make a majority in the Assemblé Nationale. Likewise, the Front Nationale, which currently only has two out of 577 places in the Assemblé, would also struggle to make a majority.

Although in the eyes of the candidates the campaign has been going on for some time, the official campaign doesn’t begin until April 10 - two weeks before the first round of voting. Whether or not the two front-runners, Macron and Le Pen, will remain at the top of the polls after two weeks of campaign advertisements is anybody’s guess, but it’s clear that the upcoming vote has the potential to reap a result like never before seen in France.

Joe Bourke is a student of Journalism and International Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is currently in Lyon, France as part of his studies.

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