PARIS (MarketWatch) — I had just finished dinner at the restaurant Chez Françoise on Thursday night when I heard the news of the shooting on the Champs-Élysées, about a mile away.
It is being investigated as a terrorist act, and the Islamic State has claimed responsibility. That will help the National Front, founded by Marine Le Pen’s father, in the upcoming presidential election. (President Trump said in a tweet Friday that the attack “[w]ill have a big effect on presidential election!”) The party has taken a hard line on immigration and has promised to expand the police force and its powers in a recommitment to law and order. Marine Le Pen is also deeply skeptical of the European Union, in line with her populist commitment to “putting France first.”
Never has the outcome of French elections been so uncertain. The election is this Sunday (April 23), but at this point, it is impossible to forecast the two winners who will go on to the second round on May 7. In most polls, 30% to 40% of respondents say they are undecided. The leading candidates, besides Marine Le Pen, are François Fillon (Republicans), Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Unbowed France, or France Defiant).
The National Front’s Le Pen raises concerns because she is known for racist views, and the attack in Paris will help her. She has tried to distance herself from the extreme views of her father, who was openly racist and anti-Semitic, but in the last days of the campaign she is returning to anti-minority themes.
Hard-left party France Defiant is skeptical of international institutions, as Mélenchon has pledged to withdraw from NATO and perhaps from the EU also. The party also supports confiscatory taxes as high as 100% on earnings over a certain threshold, a massive stimulus plan funded by borrowing and corporate nationalization of some industries.
Mélenchon is high in the polls, which is frightening many people here. Some see a duel between Le Pen and Mélenchon, the far-right candidate versus the far-left.
Fillon’s center-right Republicans’ party is more traditionally conservative, with a focus on reforms to France’s welfare state and labor market. The party would also reduce the number of public-sector workers and rein in spending in an effort to get the country’s fiscal situation under control. Fillon was leading until it came out that he paid members of his family to work in his government office with little work to show for it.
Macron’s new En Marche! party attempts to fill what Macron sees as a void left open by the other major parties. The party calls for deepening ties with the EU, putting more public funds toward training and infrastructure, and reforms that would make it easier to do business in the country. Macron is the candidate of the right and the left. His views are fiscally conservative, yet he served in the administration of President Francois Hollande. He is less experienced and has risen to prominence only in the past two years.
The elections are unusual because it is the first time in many years that the French president, François Hollande, is not running for reelection. It’s also unusual that the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, has less than 10% of the vote. Wayene Deca, a taxi driver originally from Haiti, explained to me that this means that many people such as himself who would have voted for Hamon will instead vote for Mélenchon. A vote for Hamon is a wasted vote.
François Fillon should have won the election, but charges of corruption weakened his campaign. However, he is strengthening in the polls and could be one of those selected for the second round.
Some polls project that Le Pen, the National Front candidate, will go on to the second round with Macron. But Isabelle Maquet, a French economist, told me that she is concerned about a Le Pen-Fillon runoff because they are the two candidates with the lowest share of undecideds. “I’m terrified of that outcome because that would result in Le Pen being elected,” she said. If it’s Fillon-Le Pen, then many people could abstain, but Le Pen’s supporters might turn out and make her the president.
Influence of Trump, Brexit
The polls are being treated with caution after the unexpected (in some quarters) wins for Brexit and Donald Trump. Furthermore, the polls were predicting a win for Alain Juppé in the primary, but Francois Fillon was chosen.
The results of the legislative elections, which will take place in June, have been overshadowed by coverage of the presidential election. Unlike the United States, the French choose their president and their National Assembly in separate elections. Further, the prime minister, who is responsible for managing the government, must have the support of the majority in the National Assembly. Fillon is the only candidate whose political party has a strong chance of gaining the majority in the National Assembly.
The relatively technocratic Macron would likely be able to find common ground with a National Assembly dominated either by the Republicans or the Socialists, while a Mélenchon victory would almost certainly mean Socialist gains in the legislative branch. It is unclear, however, that a Le Pen nominee for prime minister would be able to gain a majority in the National Assembly, since her National Front party is unlikely to have much of a legislative foothold.
A Le Pen victory could therefore result in a constitutional crisis. Not every election tests the foundations of the French Republic, but this is not a typical election. The days of the Fifth Republic may be numbered.
Industrial decline fuels French political extremes(3:43)
In Amiens, hometown of presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, Whirlpool's decision to shut a factory is the latest in a wave of closures pushing voters to embrace extremist parties, mainly Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front. WSJ's Matthew Dalton reports from Amiens. Image: WSJ/Getty Images