PARIS (Reuters) – France’s April presidential election will determine whether Emmanuel Macron stays on for a second term. Here is a rundown of pollsters’ top five challengers.
During his first term, Macron, a former investment banker, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, made it easier to hire and fire workers and spent more than most European peers keeping the economy afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He has long pushed for a more assertive European Union and has spearheaded Europe’s diplomatic efforts to end the war in Ukraine.
France’s youngest leader since Napoleon, Macron’s victory in 2017 turned a sclerotic political establishment upside down while eschewing the wave of political and economic nationalism that had brought Brexit to Britain and Donald Trump to the White House.
His presidency, though, has been mired in waves of social unrest rooted in a perception that he is out of touch with ordinary people and indifferent to their everyday hardships.
MARINE LE PEN
The matriarch of France’s traditional far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) party, Le Pen, 53, is challenging for the presidency for the third time. In 2012, she was third behind Socialist Francois Hollande and Sarkozy. In 2017, she lost to Macron in the second-round runoff.
Le Pen has sought to de-demonize a party that was viewed during the leadership of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as racist and xenophobic. She has softened its Eurosceptic stance, no longer seeking a withdrawal from the EU’s single currency bloc. She says she wants decision-making powers handed back to EU member states.
In doing so, Le Pen has broadened her appeal among mainstream voters but alienated some core supporters. With France’s conservatives drifting rightwards and Zemmour outflanking her on the fringe, Le Pen had seemed somewhat squeezed from both sides.
But her ratings have substantially improved recently and polls show she is quite likely to make it to the runoff, and that if she does, it will be a more closely fought affair than in 2017.
Le Pen accepted a loan from a Russian bank in 2014 to fund her 2017 presidential campaign during which she paid a visit to the Kremlin.
Melenchon is the only left-wing candidate to poll among the top five challengers. Leader of hard-left party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), Melenchon bills his candidacy as a “popular” alternative to counter the right. He says he would put a freeze on prices, increase salaries and strengthen public services to increase the purchasing power of the French.
Polls project Melenchon, 70, winning up to 14.5% of first-round votes, boosted by how poorly other left-wing candidates are faring.
The head of the greater Paris region and a two-time former minister, Pecresse styles herself as part Margaret Thatcher, part Angela Merkel, blending consensus-seeking politics and reformist mettle. She calls herself France’s “Iron Lady”.
Pecresse, a moderate within a conservative party that has lurched rightwards, would be France’s first woman president if she wins the election.
A protegee of conservative former President Jacques Chirac and a minister when conservative Nicolas Sarkozy was president, Pecresse lambasts Macron for burning a hole in the state coffers during the pandemic. She says she would end the 35-hour working week and raise the retirement age to 65 from 62.
She has toughened her talk on immigration and Islam to neuter the threat from the far right. Muslim mothers accompanying children on school trips would be banned from wearing headscarves and religious radicalisation would become a firing offence from any job, she has said.
Zemmour, a writer and talk show pundit known for his far-right nationalism, turned the early campaign upside down with his polarising anti-immigration, anti-Islam discourse.
Once seen by opinion polls as a likely second-round candidate, he has drifted to third or fourth.
The son of Algerian Jews, Zemmour depicts himself as the embodiment of secular France’s successful post-war model of integration. He describes France as a once-great nation in steep decline, its Christian civilisation hollowed out by the growing influence of Islam because of uncontrolled immigration.
Zemmour, 63, wants France to seize back control of its borders from Europe and says Mohammed should be banned as a first name for French children. He has expressed regret at what he calls the feminisation of society and wants disabled children to be sent to “special schools”.
In September 2020, Zemmour tweeted that he favoured a “Russian alliance” and that Moscow was “the most reliable ally, even more than the United States, Germany or Britain.”
(Compiled by Richard Lough; Editing by Ingrid Melander, William Maclean)