Who will win the French presidential election?

Who will be France's next president? Here's a guide to the most unpredictable French election in decades.

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Update, 7 May: Emmanuel Macron has won the French presidential election. 

Never has a French presidential election captivated so many international commentators before. And the stakes in this race are high. The incumbent president, François Hollande, who has been trailing in opinion polls for years, is not a candidate. His Socialist Party is divided over its candidate, Benoît Hamon, designated by a primary vote but judged too left wing. Votes on the centre of both left and right are being swept up in the campaign of the maverick candidate Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister with no party but a “political movement” with great momentum.  The centre-right candidate, François Fillon, is engulfed in a fraud scandal for which he has been charged, has lost most of his supporters as a result and leads a party in disarray. And at the far-right end of the spectrum, Marine Le Pen, the anti-EU leader of the populist Front National, is gaining ground. For the first time, the far right could win France – no one can predict the outcome of this election.

To elect the new French president, voters go to the polls twice. Unless one candidate can get a majority of more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round (held on 23 April this year), the two candidates who receive the highest scores will face each other in a run-up (7 May).

Here are the five candidates who have been regularly polling at more than 10 per cent of the vote.

Marine Le Pen, Front National, far right

Marine Le Pen, 48, is the leader of the hard-right Front National (FN). She has rebranded the jackass party of her father, Jean-Marie, which had a reputation for xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, into a populist, nationalist movement that is playing with the French people’s anxieties – namely the sluggish economy and immigration. The FN has made major gains in the polls in recent years, winning 14 city councils in 2014 and massively seducing the young. The party does very well in rural and post-industrial areas like the north-east, the east and the south-east.

Le Pen is strongly anti-European Union and promises a referendum on France’s EU membership. Her main pledges include drastically reducing immigration, reinstituting border controls and ditching the euro for a national currency. Her nationalist, populist vision puts her in direct opposition to Macron’s globalism.

She is being investigated on suspicion of “fake” jobs at the European Parliament.

She is currently second in the polls for the first round with 25.5 per cent of the vote. Current polling suggests she would make it to the run-up.

Read the NS profile of Le Pen here.

François Fillon, les Républicains, centre right

François Fillon, 63, is the candidate of the centre-right Républicains (previously UMP, previously RPR – the party of the former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac likes to change its name every decade). Since late January, the French media have been covering Fillon in great detail, but not to his advantage: he has been placed under formal investigation after a fake job scandal in which it emerged that his wife had been paid as his parliamentary assistant for years, but no proof of actual work could be found. Fillon has lost much support after he decided to keep running while being investigated.

His main pledges include liberalising the French economy and reducing the number of civil servants. Ironically, he has promised to ban the hiring of relatives as parliamentary assistants.

He is currently third in the polls in the first round with 17 per cent of the vote. In the current polling, he would not make it to the run-up.

Read the NS profile of Fillon here.

Emmanuel Macron, independent, centrist

Emmanuel Macron, 39, was François Hollande’s economy minister until 2016, when he created his own political movement, En Marche! (matching his initial letters), and entered the presidential race. He has worked as a banker and has never been elected before.

Although he has served under a Socialist government, Macron is seen as a centrist politician and is supported by François Bayrou, who has run as the centre’s candidate in past elections.

Macron has been widely criticized for his “lack of experience” and for not publishing a programme until a few weeks ago. His main pledges include the liberalisation of the French job market and reforming the education system. His globalist, international vision puts him in opposition to Marine Le Pen’s nationalism.

He is currently leading in the first round with 26 per cent of the vote. He would make it to the run-up.

Read the NS profile of Macron here.

Benoît Hamon, Socialist, centre left

Benoît Hamon, 49, is the candidate of the Socialist Party and has been the education minister under Hollande. But the party hasn’t rallied behind him, judging his policies too left wing. Some Socialists have officially declared they will vote for Macron instead. The former prime minister Manuel Valls has said he “could not vote” for Hamon.

Hamon has been compared to Jeremy Corbyn, though he is strongly pro-Europe. His main pledges include taxing robots and creating a basic universal income.

He is currently fifth in the first round, with 10 per cent of the vote. He would not make it to the run-up.

Read the NS profile of Hamon here.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, France Insoumise, far left

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 65, is the candidate for the hard left with his movement France Insoumise. He is much closer to Jeremy Corbyn than Hamon on Europe and nuclear weapons: his main pledges include withdrawing France from Nato and European treaties, increasing the minimum wage and setting the age of retirement at 60. (He is best known for having been the first French politician to appear as a hologram during simultaneous rallies in Paris and Lyon.)

He is currently fourth in the first round with 15 per cent of the vote. He would not make it to the run-up.

So what happens next?

The candidates most likely to reach the second round are currently Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Some polls have Macron leading the first round, but Le Pen has a stronger base: her voters are much less likely to change their mind.

In the run-up, polls currently put Emmanuel Macron winning against Marine Le Pen with 60 per cent of the vote against Le Pen’s 40 per cent. If Fillon is facing Le Pen, polls put him winning by 58 per cent to Le Pen’s 42.

Anything can still happen before 7 May: Fillon may be forced to step down if he is charged; Macron may lose momentum; the polls may be highly underestimating Le Pen's ratings, as they did for the EU referendum and the US election. And that's without Russia in the picture. So, who will be the next French president? It may well be Emmanuel Macron. But it's far too early to tell for sure.

Poll source: Ifop/Paris Match, April 3

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.