Americans are still reeling from the 2016 presidential election. We seemed to have every kind of intrigue possible, from “crooked Hillary” to Donald Trump’s nonstop scandal machine. A socialist nearly won the Democratic primary, and, despite 16 viable Republican candidates, a billionaire reality TV star and political novice (who, among other things, accused Sen. Ted Cruz’s father of conspiring in JFK’s assassination) won the GOP nomination, then the presidency.
But if you think Americans had a rough election year, take a look at what’s been going on in France, which holds the first round of its presidential election next month.
To begin with, the old-guard politicians were out of the race practically before it began. The incumbent, President François Hollande, made history by deciding not to run for re-election as the Socialist Party candidate. This was due to his record-low approval ratings, at a shocking 4 percent. Benoît Hamon, who supports a universal income, stepped in to run as the Socialist candidate. He is currently in fourth place, making a Socialist win unlikely.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was in the running for the conservative Républicains. He was projected to win the primary election in November, but seemingly out of nowhere his former prime minister, François Fillon, surged to take the nomination with 44 percent of the vote. Polls had only given him a 15 percent change of victory. Sarkozy came in third with only 20 percent. It looks like it’s been a rough year for pollsters on both sides of the pond.
The three prominent candidates remaining are François Fillon, Emmanul Macron, and Marine Le Pen. Each has brought enough intrigue, scandal, and surprises to the French presidential race to rival the candidates here in the United States.
More About François Fillon
After François Fillon emerged as the conservative candidate, he was neck-and-neck with Le Pen in the polls. It was thought he could defeat her handily if the two went to the runoff election in May. Then came a scandal earlier this year that relegated him to third place, roughly six points behind Macron and Le Pen.
Fillon had paid his wife and children taxpayer-funded salaries for parliamentary work that they allegedly never performed. Fillon vowed to step down if a formal judicial investigation was launched. Then, when such an investigation was announced, he declined to do so.
Last week, Fillon’s supporters and staff—including his campaign manager—began jumping ship. His party called on him to step down and urged Alain Juppé, who lost to Fillon in the primaries, to take his place. But Fillon won’t budge. After Juppé declined to step in, the conservative party leaders decided last week that they would, in the end, stand behind Fillon.
So Fillon is staying in the race while under investigation, and has retained his base with 20 percent of the votes—for now. But in case French voters were getting bored, last week news broke that Fillon failed to disclose a 50,000 Euro interest-free loan to a state transparency watchdog. The loan came from a billionaire, Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, who’s wrapped up in yet another scandal with Fillon: accusations that the candidate’s wife was given another fake job in exchange for Fillon recommending Lacharrière for the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 2010.
As for Marine Le Pen
Then there’s Marine Le Pen. The leader of the right-wing National Front party is an outspoken critic of the European Union and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door immigration policy. She is frequently accused of racism and xenophobia, and is seen as the French Donald Trump because of her populist views. She is pro-Frexit, anti-EU, and pro-Russia. Like Trump, she’s positioned herself as the anti-establishment candidate, although she’s not the only one taking this tack. She shares something else with President Trump. Like him, she is pulling voters away from the Left.
But, like Fillon, Le Pen is also being investigated for misusing funds under the second “fake” jobs scandal of France’s election season. According to the EU, Le Pen used parliamentary money to pay the salaries of her bodyguard and assistant, falsely claiming they were EU parliamentary assistants. This led to the French police raiding the National Front headquarters. When a French journalist questioned Le Pen about the corruption accusations at a press conference last month, he was thrown out.
Le Pen was also recently stripped of her immunity by the European Parliament for sharing graphic images of ISIS executions on social media in 2015, opening her to criminal charges that could carry jail time. Then, in February, Le Pen made a media splash when she refused to wear a headscarf to a scheduled visit with a Muslim cleric in Lebanon.
Until last year, no one considered Le Pen a serious contender in the presidential race. But after doing well in polls over the summer, amid a wave of ISIS attacks and the general rise in populism across the Western world, she is now seen as a top contender. Although the latest polls show her behind by one point in the first round and more then ten points in the runoff, there’s a feeling in France that anything could happen—especially after Trump’s surprise win in the United States.
The Real Surprise Is Emmanuel Macron
But the real surprise has been the independent centrist candidate Emmanual Macron, who just took the lead over Le Pen. Macron, a first-time politician, doesn’t like to categorize himself on the left-right spectrum, preferring instead to say he is “of the Left” and open to ideas from the Right. Macron has alienated some on the Left because of his pro-business stance. Yet many Socialist politicians are abandoning their candidate, Hamon, in favor of Macron.
Macron’s campaign shares certain things in common with Trump’s. He has never run for public office, and only came on the national scene three years ago when President Hollande named him minister of the economy. Macron uses this to his advantage, framing himself as a political outsider who can fix France’s broken political system. His platform is all about change and reform, and against the kind of nepotism Fillon is accused of. Macron’s campaign events draw huge crowds in large stadiums, very reminiscent of Trump’s packed campaign events.
Macron is also a curious figure who swims against the tide. Last month, he said publicly that France’s colonization of Algeria was a “crime against humanity.” This might seem like normal self-flagellation for a Western country (something we got used to during the Obama administration), but in France it is anathema.
What’s more, Macron is a slick, young, attractive, well-educated 39-year-old who is seen as intelligent and well-spoken. Before entering politics, he worked first as a civil servant and then as an investment banker. But he views money in a decidedly un-Wall Street manner. A close friend describes him as only wanting money so he can “be free,” not so he can amass material things—an utterly un-Trumpian stance.
His personal life is no less interesting. At the age of 30, Macron married a woman 24 years older than him, with whom he’d first had an affair he was 16 and she was 40. She was his drama teacher.
For now, Macron is poised to win the election, but at this point only a fool would put money on any of these candidates. The fact is, no one knows how the French election will turn out. Accusations of corruption, interference from Russia, and sabotage abound. The country has experienced more than one surprise surge from an underdog candidate, putting pollsters in an uncomfortable position.
But one thing’s for sure: the French know how to put on one heck of a political spectacle. Let’s face it: they always have.