France is about to pick a new president. C’est bien, you say, but you’re still recovering from the tectonic shifts of 2016. (Brexit! Trump!) You really should pay attention, though. One of Europe’s most important countries will end up being run either by a far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, or someone who’s never held elected office, centrist Emmanuel Macron. Either way, the result will ripple across the globe.
Here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming vote.
Why should you care?
If you’re in the EU:
The EU already has its hands full dealing with its impending divorce from the UK. Le Pen has vowed to pull France out of the EU too. Could the 28-nation group survive the loss of two of its richest and most populous members? Probably not. “A French government that abandons the euro would be a far greater political shock than Britain leaving the EU,” two analysts say.
If you’re in the US:
There’s a real feeling brewing that this presidential election, just like America’s, could bring instability. One political observer says the French “have had enough of the left and right” and that “they want to throw the table over.” In fact, voters have already done that – a first round of votes in April whittled down 11 candidates to two, and the pair left standing comes from outside the political establishment. No matter who wins, a new style of governance is on the way. Americans who have been watching the French election may have noticed a whole host of truly frightening similarities with the US poll: underwhelming and alarming candidates, allegations of corruption, and gaffes. So many gaffes.
If you’re anywhere else in the world:
See above how everyone hates too much change in the world. Also, anyone in a war-torn country in the Mideast or Africa casting a glance to France as a haven might find the door slamming shut. Immigration, especially from Islamic countries, has been a hot-button issue in this election, and Le Pen wants to temporarily ban even legal immigration.
If you’re into the markets:
The two leading candidates have very different economic visions. Le Pen wants France to dump the euro and protect French jobs, while Macron is a champion of closer European integration. Markets hate, hate, hate volatility. Look at how they reacted after the Greek elections in 2012. With the UK leaving the EU, France is the No. 2 economic powerhouse. And a change there will affect markets.
How does this work?
Voters went to the polls on April 23 for round one, sending Le Pen and Macron to face-off in the second and final round Sunday. Yes, it’s a two-step process. That’s different from the US where a presidential candidate’s fate ultimately rests on one day. (But it sure drags on and on to get there). And it’s very different from, say, Indian state elections that are staggered over five weeks.
Marine Le Pen
Who she is: She’s the leader of the far-right National Front party. She’s controversial, mainly because of her party’s history of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. She’s tried to soften the party’s image, to middling success. In April, for instance, she said France was not responsible for the wartime roundup of Jews who were sent to Nazi death camps. That didn’t go over well.
What she wants: She wants France out of both the EU and NATO. She wants to slash immigration to just 10,000 “entries” per year. She decries globalization and has vowed to fight “radical Islam.” Sounds familiar? If she wins, she becomes the first far-right president elected in the EU’s history.
Fun fact: After law school, Le Pen worked as a public defender and sometimes defended … illegal immigrants.
Shocking fact: At age 8, Le Pen survived a bombing that destroyed her family’s apartment. The attackers were trying to get her dad, who founded the National Front.
Who he is: He’s the biggest surprise in this election. He’s a centrist whom no one really took seriously at first. He didn’t have the backing of any of the major political parties, so he formed his own, En Marche! movement. And – surprise – he made it past round one as well.
What he wants: He backs liberal, yet business-friendly measures, to boost the economy. He wants to increase defense and police spending. He wants better pay for teachers and unity at a time where France is riven with fractures.
Fun fact: As a 17 year old, he told his high school teacher that he’d marry her one day. And he did.
What are the major issues?
France is in the economic doldrums. Unemployment’s at 10% and GDP growth is weak. Both candidates agree that France needs a shock to the system. Macron, a former banker who served as economy minister, has argued that France can become more competitive if it embraces globalization and doubles down on free trade. Le Pen, meanwhile, represents a radical departure from the status quo in France. She advocates a strident brand of economic nationalism that could mean new trade barriers and the country’s exit from the eurozone.
This is the biggie. It’s what’s driving everything else in this election. Many voters think current immigration policies have worsened France’s unemployment problems and contributed to the deadly terror attacks over the past couple of years. And, as in many parts of Europe, the far right is riding the issue to popularity in the polls.
In the first round, the wife and two adult children of Republican candidate Francois Fillon were accused of earning more than $1 million for parliamentary assistant jobs they allegedly never showed up for.
Le Pen posted violent images of killings by ISIS on Twitter (a no-no in France). The European Parliament said she could be prosecuted for her actions.
Macron had to apologize for condemning France’s colonial past in Algeria and dismiss talk of an alleged affair.
In a final televised debate Wednesday, Le Pen claimed Macron may have an offshore account in the Bahamas. The Paris prosecutor has opened a preliminary investigation after Macron filed a complaint against Le Pen over the comments.
So, who has a real shot of winning?
A number of polls released this month suggest that Macron, a pro-European centrist, leads the far-right Le Pen by about 20 points. Analysts predict left-wing and conservative voters – repulsed by the thought of the leader of the National Front running the country – will rally to him. But remember, right up to election night in the US last year, no one gave Donald Trump much of a chance either, and now we call him Mr. President.
What happens after the election?
We look forward to June when the country holds parliamentary elections. A recent poll by OpinionWay-SLPV Analytics for the Les Echos newspaper shows that Macron’s En Marche! would win the largest share of Parliament’s 577 seats. The survey – the only poll so far – looked at 535 of the seats, so an outright majority could also be on the cards. That would mark a meteoric rise for the fledgling party that launched less than a year ago.
In France, a lot of the heavy lifting in government is done by the prime minister, and the prime minister comes from the party that holds the majority in parliament. So, no matter who’s president, he or she can’t accomplish squat if their party doesn’t win a chunk of seats in the parliament. In other words, the high-stakes drama doesn’t end when this election does.
For the rest of Europe
We look forward to September when Germany holds elections. Chancellor Angela Merkel – who many now consider the most powerful woman in the world – faces the real possibility of defeat, hit hard for her open-door policy on refugees. She’s been in power for an astonishing 11 years, and she herself has admitted that her immigration policy has hurt her party.
CNN’s Melissa Bell, James Masters and Bryony Jones contributed to this report.