On Sunday, April 23 French voters will go to the polls for the first round of presidential elections. Two candidates with the highest vote (unless any one candidate receives more than half of the votes, which has never happened yet in French history and is highly unlikely judging from the polls) will compete in the second round.
With right-wing populist and nationalist National Front party leader Marine Le Pen and left-wing populist Unsubmissive France party candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon both having close to 20% of the votes according to the recent polls, the risk of having two populist candidates from two different wings of political structure to compete against each other is rising.
Populist frontrunner Marine Le Pen is planning to ditch Euro currency, renegotiate EU rules on border-free travel and of possible Frexit if an agreement is not reached. She is the only candidate that has openly decided Euro’s fate and is set to ban all immigration. Ms Le Pen would also reject international trade agreements in supporting “intelligent protectionism” and to include 3 percent tax on imports. She intends to lower the retirement age, to cut taxes for households and increase welfare spendings for the working class. The nationalist candidate also promised to reduce French debt by printing money after they leave Eurozone.
Recently, Jean-Luc Mélenchon who is also supported by the Communist party, and who allegedly is a great admirer of Hugo Chavez, has been rising in popularity according to the polls. In a period of double-digit unemployment and near-zero growth, Mr Mélenchon is making large gains after his success in the last presidential debates and through a number of heated speeches in Paris, Lion, and other major cities.
In February, there were talks of a coalition between Mélenchon and Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon. The 69-year-old Mélenchon is a former socialist who left the party in 2008 after having served some 30 years in various ministerial positions. However, talks have been broken down as the candidates were unable to overcome differences on Europe. Following this, he has been eating into the Hamon’s voters who’s shares declined to 8% from 15% in February.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon proposes to renegotiate European treaties or quit EU if negotiations bare no outcome. Like many populists in Europe, he’s deeply skeptical of the European Union and international trade deals, and has even proposed taking France out of NATO and moving closer to Russia. His populist promises, however, saw a change recently to a somewhat softer stance on EU. He stated that France will not leave EU under his government if EU will focus on jobs and growth.
Mélenchon wants to put a 100 percent earning tax on those who earn above €400,000, creating a salary cap, and direct those resources on public spending. Mr Mélenchon has also promised to apply “equitable protectionism” in trade to stimulate farming and goods production in France. In terms of budget, Mr Mélenchon suggests to increase spendings by €250bn a year, raise public sector wages, increase taxes and raise indebtedness. He proposed to decrease work hours to 32-hour per week and lower retirement age to 60.
In a sign that the French were less enthusiastic about the European Union’s current state, some 37 percent of respondents in the Elabe poll held in March said being a member of the 28-country club had “more disadvantages than advantages”. Some 31 percent said it had “more advantages than disadvantages” and 32 percent said the positives and negatives were equal.
According to the current polls, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen will both lose against pro-EU candidates in the first and second round respectively. However, Brexit referendum results and Trump win against the odds should have taught investors a lesson. And in a race with a 15-year low participation rate of 62%, voting results can be quite unpredictable.