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The French presidential election: Why is the choice so difficult?

After two disappointing five-year presidential terms, the French population is about to select a new president, as voting in the first-round of elections is underway. In 2007, France voted for the right wing, electing former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s time in office – marked by liberal reforms, appearances in tabloids and controversial words – set him up for a battle with socialist candidate François Hollande in the second round of the 2012 election. Hollande won in some part due to his campaign promises and the image he projected of himself as a president close to the people he would govern.

There is a widespread loss of trust in political representation.

But the French public was disappointed again, as, after five years, many of Hollande’s promises went unfulfilled. The current president has even set a new record low of 4 percent in popularity polls.

New election, new context

In 2017, as the French citizenry goes to the polls to elect the eighth president of the republic, doubts and questions dot the political and economic context of the country. France has been the site of several terrorist attacks and, like almost every country in Europe, several waves of immigration for which it was not prepared. The French people saw the United Kingdom vote to exit the European Union, placing the entire institution in question. At home, tensions are rising between youth and the police, especially in the suburbs. An ensuing gap is growing between the state and the people.

This is the context in which the French people must elect a new president.

While France’s civil society sees in the election an opportunity to break the state of political stagnation, there is also widespread loss of trust in political representation. Politics is seen as a corrupt sphere in which wealthy men protect their private interests. The media, which is mainly owned by business groups, is accused of colluding with politicians and thus not always seen as neutral. The powerful financial milieu, that Hollande promised to fight against in 2012, continues to rule the economy.

A long list of candidates

Nevertheless, the election of the next president of the fifth republic finally is presented as a chance to build something new. Primaries were organized to choose the candidates of the two main parties, with the right electing François Fillon, the former prime minister under Sarkozy, and the left selecting Benoit Hamon, who defeated former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and is surrounded by controversy. The choice of Fillon was more of a way to refuse Sarkozy, who was also running in the primaries, than a vote in favor of him.

Then come the others: The far-right candidate of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, gained ground in the last local elections, becoming a major player on the political scene. Emmanuel Macron, the former minister of the economy under Hollande, who founded the social liberal En Marche! (Forward!) movement last year in an attempt to position himself outside of the usual right-left dichotomy. He is the youngest candidate in the race and is a former investment banker. Farther to the left on the political spectrum stands Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has changed his strategy since he first ran for president in 2012. He is now less radical, offering his main project as the creation of the sixth republic.

Mélenchon, Le Pen and Macron are the main candidates in the 11-person race. They are joined by François Asselineau, an advocate for “Frexit,” France’s way out of the European Union; Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who promotes French sovereignty; Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud, who defend workers and denounce capitalism; Jean Lassalle, who stands for rural France; and Jacques Cheminade, who proffers spatial colonization.

A long list of issues

The future of France’s participation in the European project is a question that has presented itself to the public with new prominence since the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union. To leave the economic bloc has been framed as a way to regain national sovereignty, and, even if not everyone is in favor of a “Frexit,” many of the candidates have endorsed a renegotiation of treaties. While questions about the European Union in France reveal a desire for independence from European leaders, especially Germany, exiting would have economic consequences that include reintroducing a national currency and borders, in addition to renegotiating commercial agreements. And beyond the candidates’ respective arguments, the French public and civil society are struggling to grasp what a Frexit would actually mean.

Even if not everyone is in favor of a “Frexit,” many candidates have endorsed a renegotiation of treaties.

Migration and the inflow of refugees, particularly from the Middle East, is another issue that has figured prominently in the election cycle. While a large part of the population has advanced arguments that conflate Muslims and Islamists, the most radical candidates, especially Marine Le Pen, are using the fight against terrorism to halt the receipt of refugees from the region.

While attempting to counterbalance the painful memories of repeated terror attacks with a vision of a France that is open and plural, the French people are concerned about their own future and eager for employment rates and purchasing power to rise again.

Facing these worries and concerns, there is a wide margin of French voters that remain undecided. And even though the main candidates all advocate a renewal, they are still part of a worn-out political system. Both right and left wing parties are intrinsically divided. Traditional voters on either end of the spectrum do not identify with Fillon or Hamon, as both are seen as representations of the right and the left respectively. Even a face that represents an escape from this dichotomy, Macron, is seen as quite controversial. The election hence has become an exercise in uncertainty, due in large part to a lack of trust and ideological commitment.

Marine Le Pen is using the fight against terrorism to advocate for halting the flow of refugees from the Middle East.

Then comes the question of the strategic vote: Is it better to vote for a candidate who is likely to be elected according to the polls, in order to uproot the one we oppose? Or is it better to abstain altogether amid the impossibility of renewal, unkept promises and persistent corruption.

Today, we will witness how the fate of our traditional democratic system plays out, as it encounters a disoriented and hesitant public.

Sarah Calamand