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