When asked to name something that was not said by commentators during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, English comedian Hugh Dennis joked, “‘…The French [athletes] have four faults: their language, their food, underarm hair, and the fact that they are French.'” It seems, though, that we’ve finally found one thing the French do right—politics.

Forget the drama of Donald Trump, for political junkies, French presidential elections—from its fascists to its sex scandals—never seem to disappoint, and certainly not this year.

While it does not have the sheer action and excitement that comes from President Tinyhands McTouchytouch, it does have all the political intrigue that any politics nerd could ask for. Because lest we forget, the sitting president of France once dumped his wife, former Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal, for a younger mistress—a mistress whom he later dumped for an even younger mistress. However, the similarities between French and American politics ends at the number of wives the incumbent president has had.

Let’s start with how the election works. Parties nominate a candidate, and all of them duel it out in a battle royale first round. The top two candidates advance to a second round of voting, where a president will be chosen. Simple.

The traditional two parties—the Republicans to the right and the Socialists to the left—each held a primary to determine their candidates; but let us not start there, because currently, polling shows neither party is going to make it past the first round.

Instead, let us begin with how we got here. In 2012, Socialist Francois Hollande (previously noted adulterer) defeated Republican incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy (remember that name for later). However, Hollande’s failure to improve the economy and an abandonment of socialist principles in favor of more pro-business stances disillusioned the French public on both the left and the right. Hollande declined to contest the election due to dismal poll numbers (and not even because he cheated on two wives).

Establishment unpopularity gave rise to multiple third parties outside the political mainstream. One of these parties is the Front National, a far-right Eurosceptic Islamophobic nativist party whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is set to get past the first round with a quarter of the vote. Marine took over the party from her father, Jean-Marie, the aforementioned fascist who came in second in the first round in 2002 before losing in a second round landslide.

Marine has taken steps to modernise and moderate the Front National from the political fringe to the mainstream, including expelling her father from the party and taking more center-left positions on the economy.

Then there is outsider centrist Emmanuel Macron, policy-wise, the polar opposite of le Pen. The former investment banker and Hollande minister is, like Hollande, pro-business, pro-Europe, and socially liberal. He has even offered American scientists safe-haven from Donald Trump. He formed his own third party, “En Marche!” (or “Forward!” in English), and is currently polling to face off against Le Pen in the second round, beating out both the Socialists and the Republicans.

If all goes well for Macron, he will be the next, and the youngest ever, president of France, at 39 years of age, as he would handily defeat Le Pen in the second round, garnering both left and right-wing support.

On the far-left, veteran leftist euro-sceptic Jean-Luc Melenchon is running his own campaign movement, Unsubmissive France. Of course, Melenchon is looking to break with France’s long and deeply-rooted tradition of submission. He is probably best known for appearing to supporters in the style of Tupac—via hologram.

His flamboyant style and his debate performances have seen him skyrocketing in the polls to within striking distance of Le Pen and Macron. One poll had him coming in second place.

As previously mentioned, incumbent Francois Hollande’s low approval rating led him to not contest the election or the Socialist primary. That left Manuel Valls, the centrist reformist Prime Minister and Hollande loyalist, to compete with Arnaud Montebourg, the left-wing rebel and former Industry minister.

At first, the contest looked as if it would go down to the wire, with Valls coming in first in the first round, and both men polling around 50% in the second round. But during the debates, a dark horse candidate emerged: former Education minister Benoit Hamon, who skyrocketed in the polls thanks to his left-wing reformist programme, including his signature proposals of a basic income and a tax on robots.

Hamon won the first round, and went on to defeat Valls in the second with the support of Montebourg. After his victory, he garnered the support of environmentalist candidate Yannick Jadot and attempted to ally with Melenchon. However, their differences on Europe (Hamon being pro-Europe and Melanchon being euro-sceptic) led to the talks falling apart. Melenchon’s rise in the polls, along with lacklustre debate performances, have led to Hamon currently polling in a distant fifth place.

The Republicans started off as the runaway favourites to win the presidential election. Either Alain Juppe, the moderate and former Prime Minister under Jacques Chirac who was initially leading in the polls, or Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-winger and former President, was going to win the Republican primary and blow le Pen out of the water in the second round.

But neither was to be the nominee. Another dark horse candidate, Francois Fillon, (who was, in reality, not a dark horse at all, serving as Prime Minister under President Sarkozy) soared in the polls offering sweeping right-wing reforms not seen in Europe since Margaret Thatcher (whom he personally admires). In winning the primary, Fillon effectively ended the political careers of both Sarkozy and Juppe.

Fillon was, at the time of his victory, leading in both first and second round polling, but hold your dark horses! The twists don’t stop there! Just when it looked as if Fillon would run away with the Élysée, “Penelopegate” broke.

Fillon had allegedly paid his Welsh wife, Penelope, to do work she never did. While paying wives to do work was not abnormal in French politics, paying your spouse work she never did was.

With that, Fillon sunk in the polls beneath a gaining Macron. Fillon asked his party for two weeks to defend himself against the scathing allegations. The Republicans scrambled to find alternatives if Fillon were to drop out. Murmurs began about a coup d’etat, Republicans looking for a candidate to plunge a knife into Fillon’s back, or perhaps even reviving the political careers of Juppe or Sarkozy to take Fillon’s place on the Republican ticket.

Eventually, Fillon remained on the ticket, despite the calls for him to step down and despite his previous promises to step down if investigated.

So that is where the election stands. Five candidates: A gaining Macron, a united far-right behind Le Pen, a falling Fillon, the left divided between Hamon and Melenchon, all vying for the Presidential Palace. At the present time, Macron, Le Pen, Fillon, and Melenchon are all within 5% of each other. It is anybody’s race.

The oddsmakers are favoring Macron by a landslide, in spite of the fact that he’s 39, never held elected office, holds centrist views similar to the current unpopular government, wears a skinny tie, and was an investment banker at Rothschild’s.

Who needs America?



Photo courtesy of the Financial Times