French Presidential Elections: First Primary this Sunday

France’s Republican Party has its primary this Sunday to choose its Presidential candidate for next April’s elections. As France has a two-round voting system (the top two candidates advance to a run-off to be held a week later) this Sunday will not actually decide the Republican party’s candidate, but it will establish a clear favorite. Whoever wins is widely seen as the favorite to win the Presidential election itself, given the disorder of the Socialist Party and the general electorate’s unease with National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.

But as Brexit and Trump’s win show, anything can happen in politics and the race is wide open. The two main parties in France are the Socialist and the Republican parties. The National Front, headed by Marine Le Pen, is a far-right (but also attracts significant support from former Communists and other leftists) party that currently polls at around 20-30 percent, a barrier it is believed to be unable to crack. Marine Le Pen has vowed, were she to win the Presidency, to hold a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union. With the power of the office, she would have much greater ability to influence the outcome of said referendum. The EU would not survive France’s departure, given both France’s practical importance in Europe and its symbolic importance as the main founder and architect of the Union itself. The collapse of the EU would be huge, to say the least. It would represent the largest change to European politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with far-ranging global consequences. So, with this at stake, who else is running?

In the Republican Party, there are three main contenders. Alain Juppe, a former prime minister currently at the head of the polls for the primary. His campaign is based on unity, much as Hillary Clinton’s was before she lost. The similarities don’t end there, however. He is broadly unpopular, given his divisive premiership, and he seems to promise little change, something electorates the world over are dying for. But he is also seen as a “steady hand at the helm” in a turbulent time, and he is leading the polls currently. Next is Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who lost his second term to the now deeply unpopular Francois Hollande. Sarkozy is attempting to rebrand himself as a tough strongman, reaching further right and using rhetoric shared with the National Front. While it is winning him many supporters, it is also gaining him many opponents. There is a reason the National Front has such a poor electoral record, and given that France already rejected Sarkozy once it may be a poor decision to adopt the NF populist strategy. But with his name recognition, and the fact that until this past August he was the head of the Republican party itself, he is still a force to be reckoned with. The final contender is Francois Fillion, formerly serving as prime minister under Sarkozy. Fillon is attempting to occupy the middle ground between Juppe and Sarkozy, and given the closeness of the polls it seems to be working. France’s two round system makes the final result near impossible to call however, as the elimination of candidates in the second round frees up many voters to make new choices.

The political Left in France is currently a mess, mainly due to the miserable performance and unbelievable unpopularity of current President Francois Hollande. Hollande is so unpopular, he may not even run for a second term, he has not made a final decision yet. Should he run, he would most certainly lose. Election polls around the world have been notoriously inaccurate as of late, but one thing is clear: the French don’t like Hollande. Rumors abound that Hollande’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls will challenge Hollande in the Socialist Party’s own primary early next year. The fact the the party in power is holding a primary is itself testament to the unpopularity of Hollande, as is the likeliness that he won’t win even the primary. If the Socialist Party picks Hollande as their candidate, they will lose. But if they can rally behind a new face, perhaps Manuel Valls, they can still be a force in the upcoming election.

Further complicating the matter is Emmanuel Macron, who confirmed his candidacy this week. Macron is a bit of an anomaly in French politics at the moment. He is a Socialist, though not formally a party member, serving as Hollande’s Economy Minister until he resigned earlier this year to run for President, but is fiercely pro-business and free market. He is also, at age 38, far younger than the other candidates and is widely popular. But not only has he never won an election, he has never even run in one and for his first, he is going it alone by running as an independent with no party structure to support him. But the combination of the Left’s inability to field any viable candidate, the Right’s over-crowded field, and his own popularity and strong media coverage mean it is far too soon to write him off. Recent elections around the world have come down to one thing: Change. Macron; a youthful, energetic, pro-business, left-leaning independent; certainly would be a change.

Looming over all this is Marine Le Pen and the National Front. The National Front was founded by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Under Jean-Marie, the National Front was decidedly far-right. Openly racist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic it was a party of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers. But since Marine Le Pen took over in 2011, the party has undergone a dramatic transformation. In many ways, it is no longer far-right or even on the right at all. Marine Le Pen’s party is still nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-globalization but now members who make racist or anti-Semitic remarks are expelled, including Jean-Marie Le Pen himself. There is a sense that today’s National Front is no longer opposed to other cultures, as long as they remain foreign and outside of France. It is a much more inclusive form of nationalism then that of Jean-Marie. Still, given its history and the continued presence in the party of many individuals of like mind and temperament to Jean-Marie, many in France remain understandably unwilling to vote for the National Front. Even so, victory remains a very real possibility for Marine Le Pen.

France holds it Presidential Elections next April, but the first primary is this Sunday. The field is quite crowded, even after the elimination of the many Republican party contenders. There are also many unknowns. Can the Socialist party pull itself together and find a candidate? Will the Republican party nominate a stability candidate or opt for the recycled populism of Sarkozy? Can Marine Le Pen rally voters weary of the mainstream parties, and get them to look past her party’s history? Or will voters flock to Macron, eschewing parties altogether? Whatever happens, this promises to be one of France’s most interesting elections.