French presidential election: runners and riders

Your guide to the candidates in today's French election.

Ahead of the first round of the French presidential election this Sunday, here's a Staggers guide to the five main candidates.

How does the election work?

The presidential election is held over two rounds. The first round [22 April] is open to any candidate who has the written support of at least 500 local elected officials. Assuming that no one wins an absolute majority of votes, a run-off [6 May] is held between the top two candidates.

The winner then becomes president for the enusing term of office, which was reduced from seven years to five years following a 2000 referendum. Since the constitutional law of 23 July 2008, a president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac are the only Fifth Republic presidents who have served full two terms [14 years for the former, 12 years for the latter].

Nicolas Sarkozy (Union for a Popular Movement)

The man who entered office as the most popular president since Charles de Gaulle is now the most unpopular in the history of the Fifth Republic. Sarkozy’s extravagant personal life [he acquired the nickname “President Bling Bling” during his first months in power] has antagonised the electorate, while persistently high unemployment and the loss of France’s triple-A credit rating have damaged his economic credibility.

In a desperate attempt to claw back support, the French president has run an unashamedly demagogic campaign, pledging to halve immigration [he has said there are “too many foreigners” in the country] and to limit state benefits for legal migrants. Following National Front candidate Marine Le Pen’s lead, he has also exploited fears of growing Muslim influence, vowing to ban halal meat from state-school canteens.

To date, this strategy has met with some success. Polls now put Sarkozy neck-and-neck with  François Hollande in the first round, although the Socialist candidate retains a comfortable lead in a hypothetical run-off. The French president has portrayed his opponent as an irresponsible spendthrift, warning of a bond market revolt if Hollande is elected. Sarkozy, who recently hailed better-than-expected borrowing figures, has pledged to eliminate France’s 5.2 per cent budget deficit by 2016 through  €75 billion of spending cuts and  €40 billion of tax increases.

François Hollande (Socialist Party)

Tipped to become the first Socialist to enter the Élysée Palace since François Mitterand won re-election in 1988, Hollande has vowed to be “a normal president” in contrast to the exuberant Sarkozy. Traditionally viewed as a moderate social democrat, he has tacked to the left in response to a surge in support for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Hollande has pledged to introduce a new top tax rate of 75 per cent on earnings above one million euros a year, to create 60,000 new education jobs and to reintroduce retirement at 60 for those who have worked at least 41 years. But he has also vowed to eliminate France’s budget deficit by 2017 and has promised to avoid any immediate nationalisations.

In February, Hollande visited London [where 72,000 French expatriates are registered to vote], where he met Ed Miliband, though not David Cameron. The Labour leader said he had been “very, very encouraged” by “the leadership” Hollande had shown on the issue of financial regulation. “I hope the French election can be a force for change in Europe and that this change can also happen in Britain,” he added. Hollande also used the trip to reassure the City of London that he was not “dangerous”, despite his description of finance as his “greatest adversary”.

The Socialists have a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory but the polls continue to suggest that Hollande will triumph over Sarkozy in the final round.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Left Front)

The former teacher and ex-Socialist minister has emerged as the most popular far-left candidate for decades, with polls putting him in third place. Mélenchon, who represents the Left Front, a coalition of several parties including the Communists, having abandoned the Socialist Party in 2008, has called for a “citizen’s revolution” against the ruling rich and the establishment of a Sixth Republic in which the president will have less power and the national assembly more.

His policies include a cap on incomes over €360,000 a year, a 20 per cent rise in the minimum wage, a ban on profitable companies laying off workers, withdrawal from Nato and a referendum on the EU treaty.

A charismatic orator with a gift for populist rhetoric, Mélenchon has described Hollande as being as useful as the “captain of a pedalo” in a storm. He has also launched a series of attacks on far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, calling her a "filthy beast spitting hatred", a "bat" and a "dark presence".

Hollande has refused to negotiate on policy with the Left Front but should the party perform well in the legislative elections in June, he could be forced to offer Mélenchon a place in government.

Marine Le Pen (National Front)

The daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has attempted to shed the party’s racist image, styling herself as a more modern figure than her father, who was recently convicted of contesting crimes against humanity for saying the Nazi occupation of France was not "particularly inhumane".

Le Pen’s campaign has focused on what she describes as the “Islamisation” of France and on the alleged threat posed by migrants. She has pledged to reduce immigration to 5 per cent of its current level and to create a new ministry of the interior, immigration and secularism. Le Pen has also vowed to withdraw France from the euro [she describes the EU as “A European Soviet Union”] and to adopt protectionist economic policies.

In January, Le Pen was neck-and-neck with Sarkozy in the polls but her ratings have fallen as the French president has adopted increasingly hardline stances on immigration, the EU and halal meat. As a result, she will almost certainly not repeat her father’s 2002 feat of winning a place in the run-off, although some fear a late surge in support from voters wary of publicly supporting her candidacy.

Francois Bayrou (Democratic Movement)

The eternal “third man” of French politics has made his traditional centrist pitch, appealing to those voters for whom Sarkozy is too conservative and Hollande too radical. Bayrou’s campaign has emphasised the need for fiscal discipline [he has promised to cut spending by €50bn and find €50bn in new revenue], for greater private sector job creation and for further European integration.

Although a devout Catholic, Bayoru takes a liberal stance on issues such as gay rights and abortion. He has described Sarkozy’s focus on the alleged dangers of Islam as “poisonous”.

Bayrou took the French establishment by surprise in 2007 when he finished third in the first round and won nearly a fifth of the vote. On this occasion, however, he has struggled to keep pace with Mélenchon and Le Pen. But should Sarkozy narrow Hollande’s lead in the second round, he could yet end up as kingmaker.

Latest poll

First Round

François Hollande 27%

Nicolas Sarkozy 26%

Jean-Luc Mélenchon 17%

Marine Le Pen 15%

Francois Bayrou 11%

Second Round

François Hollande 57%

Nicolas Sarkozy 43%

Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon delivers a speech during a campaign meeting. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.