Frontrunners Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen dominate heated debate which centres on immigration and economy.
Who is Emmanuel Macron?
Few could have asked for a better start to a political career than the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron.
The current frontrunner is a graduate of elite National School of Administration, which produces the country’s top civil servants and counts three French presidents among its alumni.
Macron will be hoping to make it number four in May. As things stand, he looks best positioned to fend off the far-right candidacy of Marine Le Pen, who he is predicted to easily beat in a second round runoff – if the polls are correct.
After graduating, Macron worked as a financial inspector at the Ministry of Economy before joining Rothschild & Cie bank as an investment banker.
Politically, he was a member of the Socialist Party for three years, before becoming an independent politician in 2009.
The 39-year-old’s first roles came under Francois Hollande as a member of his personal staff and later as a minister of economy, industry, and digital affairs under the government of Manuel Valls.
As the western world turns increasingly to the far right, Macron is unabashedly centrist 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 progressive currents emerging in the US and Britain.
Unlike several of his 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.
His sober brand of politics, youthful looks, and the implosion of competitor Francois Fillon’s campaign have seen him rise to about 27 percent in the polls – enough to secure him a place in the second round.
However, his challenge remains in energising an increasingly apathetic electorate, for whom his centrist platform offers little else except an alternative to Le Pen.
As an economic liberal, he has fiscal policies that differ little from the economic consensus built in the decade since the global crash that started in 2007.
On the European Union, Macron is also an unashamed supporter, a standpoint likely to cost him votes on both the eurosceptic left and right.
If Macron can convince the large apathetic segment of the population that he offers more than just not being Le Pen, there would be little standing in his way to taking up residence in the Elysee Palace.
Who is Marine Le Pen?
In March, Marine Le Pen emerged from a meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to deliver a proclamation to the reporter’s gathered: “A new world has emerged.”
The leader of France’s far-right National Front (FN) party hopes that she will be a leading figure in this radical reordering of the global elite, which already counts the election of US President Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the EU among its successes.
Once considered an unrealistic prospect, Le Pen would cause shockwaves just as large as Brexit or the Trump victory if she were successful in the upcoming presidential vote.
She currently sits on about a quarter of the first-round vote, a position which, unlike her rival candidates’, has barely shifted over the past few months.
Second-round voting against her likely rival Emmanuel Macron puts Le Pen considerably behind on 40 points to Macron’s 60, but those who followed Trump’s election know better than to write her off on the basis of polls.
The youngest daughter of far-right stalwart Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine was born in 1968 and followed in her father’s ideological footsteps by joining FN at 18.
In the following decades, she practised law while increasing her standing in FN, contesting several regional elections along the way.
She picked up several minor political roles in regional and municipal councils in her early 30s, and her most significant as a member of the European Parliament in 2009.
Her biggest break came after her father stepped down as FN leader in 2010, after which she took over the reins of the party.
In the followings years, Le Pen sought to shed the party’s far-right image, distancing herself and the party from her father’s Holocaust denial and racist outbursts, eventually expelling him from the party in 2015, making the FN more palatable to French conservatives and a coming generation that had little recollection of far-right rule under the Nazis.
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.
A Le Pen in the Elysee Palace would cut immigration, ban birthright citizenship, and the automatic right to nationality for the spouses of French citizens.
A dogged indifference to scandal made little difference to Trump’s popularity, and that seems to be a lesson Le Pen has learned.