French election: Everything you need to know about Sunday's vote

Posted at 7:34 AM, Apr 20, 2017

(CNN) -- France is about to pick a new president. That's nice, 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 could end up being run by a far-right leader or someone who's never held elected office. 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. At least two of the candidates in this election vow to get 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, will bring about changes no one can fully predict. One political observer says the French "have had enough of the left and right over the past 30 years" and "they want to throw the table over." An even more unpredictable world is something most Americans would rather do without. The two races have a whole host of truly frightening similarities: 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, may be the biggest issue in this election. Some of the candidates want to drastically reduce who gets to come into the country. One wants to temporarily ban even legal immigration.

If you're into the markets:

The two leading candidates have two very different economic visions. One wants France to dump the euro and protect French jobs. The other is a champion of closer European integration. Markets hate, hate, hate volatility. Look at how it 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 the market.

When's the election?

Round 1 is April 23. Then the top 2 vote-getters face off in Round 2 on May 7. 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.

Who are the cast of characters?

Marine Le Pen

Who she is: She's the leader of the far-right National Front party and the frontrunner in the first round of voting. She's also 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." Sound familiar? If she wins, she becomes the first far-right president elected in EU's history. Fun fact: After law school she worked as a public defender and sometimes defended ... illegal immigrants. Shocking fact: At age 8, she survived a bombing that destroyed her family's apartment. The attackers were trying to get her dad, who founded the National Front.)

Emmanuel Macron

Who he is: He's the biggest surprise in this five-person field. 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. And -- surprise! -- he finds himself right behind Le Pen in the polls. 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.

Francois Fillon

Who he is: He represents the Republican party and has been called the "French Thatcher" for his conservative policies. He was once the frontrunner in the race. But then a scandal erupted about his family members getting paid for jobs they didn't show up to -- and that derailed everything. What he wants: He wants to end France's vaunted 35-hour work week, cut public spending, abolish the wealth tax and reduce immigration. And, just like Margaret Thatcher, he's not afraid to tangle with the unions. Fun fact: He lives in a 12th-century castle!

Jean-Luc Melenchon

Who he is: He represents the Left Front party, a coalition of ex-Communists, disaffected youth and aging revolutionaries. He's been called the "French Bernie Sanders." He's the most captivating speaker of the bunch and he's surging in the polls. What he wants: He wants to raise the minimum wage, raise taxes on the rich and do more for France's underclass. Fun fact: He's used holograms during the campaign so he could appear at several rallies at once.

Benoit Hamon

Who he is: He's the Socialist Party nominee, and is polling last among the five candidates. Being a Socialist in the era of the very unpopular French President Francois Hollande has its price. Hollande is so disliked he decided to not even run for re-election. What he wants: He wants to create universal basic income, legalize cannabis, and impose a "robot tax," which would apply to technology that takes away jobs from humans. Fun fact: He was once called "Little Ben" because of his height -- he's 5'4".

What are the major issues?


France is in the economic doldrums. Unemployment's at 10%. GDP growth is weak. It needs a shock to the system, but the candidates, of course, disagree on what that shock should be. One of them, Melenchon, wants a 100% tax on the rich. Another, Le Pen, wants to drop the euro.



Fillon's wife and two of his adult children are accused of earning more than $1 million for parliamentary assistant jobs they 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 that. Macron's had to apologize for condemning France's colonial past in Algeria and dismiss talk of an alleged affair.


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.

So, who has a real shot of winning?

Le Pen and Macron are likely to make it to the runoff. Then, Macron could trounce her with left-wing and conservative voters -- repulsed by the thought of the leader of the National Front running the country -- rallying 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?

For France

We look forward to June when the country holds parliamentary elections. 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 for her stance on taking in refugees. She's been in power for an astonishing 11 years. But she herself has admitted that her immigration policy has hurt her party.