French elections 2017

France: Who are Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen?

French voters will choose between two radically different candidates to lead their country.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron face off in Sunday's vote [Pascal Rossignol /Reuters]

Who is Emmanuel Macron?

At just 39 years old, Emmanuel Macron seems set to become the youngest president in France's history.

Polls have him consistently at 60 percent in the run-up to Sunday's second round election against the far-right Marine Le Pen, who has struggled to break above 40.

That 20-point lead over the National Front (FN) candidate should be enough to take him over the line and into the Elysee palace later in May.

Billed as an outsider, Macron is anything but, having graduated from the prestigious National School of Administration, which produces the country's top civil servants and already counts three French presidents among its alumni. 

As Hollande's Minister of Economy, the former banker at Rothschild and Cie bank saw through many of the austerity reforms that made the incumbent so unpopular.

A significant part of the 60 percent expected to vote for him on Sunday will be doing so through gritted teeth. 

Around 24 percent of voters put him down as their first choice and much of his second-round support will come from voters on the right and left who are voting against Le Pen rather than the status-quo he is set to preserve.

As the western world turns increasingly to the far right, Macron is unabashedly centrist and pro-European Union in his outlook, appealing to French citizens who are familiar with the chaotic aftermath the election of Trump in the United States and Brexit in the UK caused.

His policies are the status quo, with a nod to the socially progressive currents emerging in the US and Britain.

Macron supporters show off selfies taken with the presidential candidate [Regis Duvignau/Reuters] 

Macron's commitment to Europe and the dominant Western order have earned him glowing references from the standard bearers of liberal values, including former US President Barack Obama.

But commitment to the status quo does not equate to shyness in confronting topics considered controversial in France

Unlike Le Pen and several of his former opponents on the left and right, Macron has avoided making pronouncements against Muslim dress codes and is a fierce defender of an open immigration system.

In February, he condemned France's colonial legacy in Algeria as a "crime against humanity", earning rebukes from many on the right.

Nevertheless, Macron stood firm, apologising only for the offence caused and not for the actual comment itself.

In the last televised debate between the two front-runners, Le Pen characterised Macron as a stooge of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and his market reforms as a threat to French workers.

The former minister responded by accusing the far-right leader of offering "snake oil" instead of real solutions to the country's problems.

The bitter exchange could just as well have been a pitch for the 2022 presidential election.

If he wins on Sunday, Macron will be taking the helm of a country beset with anxiety over the economy, the ever-looming threat of attacks by groups like ISIL, and its relationship with the EU.

Macron failure to address those worries during his tenure will make it harder to dismiss Le Pen's ideas as "snake oil" in future contests.

Who is Marine Le Pen?

A member of the Le Pen political dynasty has contested seven of the eight French presidential elections held since 1974.

No matter what the outcome of Sunday's vote, Marine Le Pen's performance will be the best showing for a far-right candidate in post-war French history.

According to the polls heading into the vote, she has the support of 40 percent of the French electorate, far exceeding the 18 percent her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, mustered after his surprise entry into the second round of the 2002 contest.

Marine took charge of the National Front party her father founded in 2011 after his retirement and set about revamping its image.

Gone were the anti-immigrant outbursts and brash denials of the Holocaust that characterised her father's tenure, and in came a more moderate public image.

But just how much of the new face is merely a facade is a matter of heated debate in the country.

While the language has changed, the issues remain largely intact, with Islam, the EU and immigration dominating her platform.

On France's large Muslim minority, Le Pen has been unequivocal.

"We do not want to live under the rule or threat of Islamic fundamentalism," she told supporters, further condemning the hijab, prayer rooms in workplaces, the construction of mosques and pork-free options in school lunches.

On the EU, Le Pen has threatened to withdraw France from the eurozone and hold a referendum on the country's continued membership of the bloc.

And for all her past detachment from her father's Holocaust-denial, Le Pen appears to have dabbled in a little herself in the 2017 campaign.

The FN candidate denied French culpability in the 1942 Vel d'Hiv round-up of Jews in Paris, who were later sent to be killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz.

In 1995, the French state apologised for the complicity of the French police and civil servants in organising and enforcing the round-up. 

Marine Le Pen has capitalised on economic anxieties brought on by austerity policies [Pascal Rossignol/Reuters]

Far-right overtones aside, Le Pen's campaign has been deeply populist and targeted at the most deprived and economically anxious segments of French society.

Her attacks on Macron have attempted to cast the frontrunner as a member of an elite that cares little for the working class.

That message was underscored by her highly publicised visit earlier this week to a Whirlpool factory in Amiens, Macron's hometown.

There she drew cheers from workers, who gathered around her for selfies, as the centrist candidate was booed away.

But such public relations victories have been infrequent and positive feelings towards her are far from universal.

While campaigning for the second round in her family's home province of Brittany, protesters hit her with an egg and forced her into cover.

With a seemingly unassailable gap to close in the polls, victory may elude Le Pen on Sunday, but her party's rise from the political fringe to an electoral force shows no sign of relenting.

The appeal of her ideas has increased in part because of widespread disillusionment with austerity policies and an inability by the political class to provide adequate opportunity for social progress to ordinary people.

Even if she loses the runoff on Sunday, if there is little improvement in the economic situation of ordinary people in France, there is every possibility she could do even better in 2022. 

Emmanuel Macron leads Marine Le Pen 60 percent to 40 in the polls leading up to Sunday's vote [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

Source: Al Jazeera