How to watch the French presidential election like a pro

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PARIS — Five years after a political newbie named Emmanuel Macron snatched the Elysée, the French president is facing no less than 11 challengers in a reelection bid overshadowed by the Ukraine war.

The French will vote in the first round of the presidential election on April 10, with a runoff scheduled for April 24. 

While no sitting president has been reelected since Jacques Chirac — both conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist François Hollande were elected only once — Macron is the front-runner this year. But the race also looks much closer than in 2017, with far-right leader Marine Le Pen narrowing the gap in the polls with him in the campaign’s final stretch.

Here’s what you need to know to watch the election like a pro.

How does the two-round system work? 

On April 10, the French will vote in the presidential election’s first round. They will have to choose from 12 candidates — including veteran politicians and newbies. The two candidates who gather the most votes on Sunday will move to the second round, scheduled for April 24.

A media blackout starts at midnight Friday and ends on Sunday when the last polling station closes at 8 p.m. During that period, politicians are not allowed to campaign or speak publicly. Newspapers and TV channels will have to wait until the media blackout is lifted to show polls or broadcast estimate results, so as not to influence citizens who haven’t voted yet. 

First vote estimates by leading polling institutes — usually close to the final outcome — will be out at 8 p.m., Sunday, with official results published later that night.

Who is running? 

President Macron is seeking reelection and while he has been polling comfortably ahead of the pack, he is facing a crowded field.

But out of his 11 challengers, only four have been polling in double digits in the campaign’s last stretch.

The National Rally’s Marine Le Pen, who faced off against Macron in the second round in 2017, is likely headed for another runoff. She has hinted that this presidential campaign will be her last — and it looks like she will make it count. Her campaign, centered around the cost of living and economic hardship, struck a chord amid rocketing energy prices caused by the Ukraine war. She has also managed to somehow sweep her long-lasting support for Russian President Vladimir Putin under the rug and to partly eclipse her far-right rival, TV pundit-turned-politician Eric Zemmour. The latter has campaigned on a hard-line anti-immigration stance and a socially conservative platform. Despite a poll surge in the fall, he hasn’t managed so far to outperform Le Pen, especially with voters with lower incomes.

Polling first among many left-leaning candidates, France Unbowed’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, on the far left of the spectrum, is running for the third time and has campaigned on a fuel price freeze and an unchanged retirement age — casting himself as the polar opposite to Macron, who announced plans to push through a long-awaited pension reform.

On the right, Valérie Pécresse, the first woman to run for conservative party Les Républicains, hasn’t really managed to pull what’s left of her party together — quite the opposite. She saw off several of her peers who rallied around Macron instead, and has yet to receive an official word of support from former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Other presidential hopefuls who are struggling to make it to the 5-percent threshold — which crucially triggers the reimbursement of campaign fees — include Green MEP Yannick Jadot, Socialist Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, Communist Fabien Roussel, nationalist candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, and Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud, who both represent anti-capitalist parties. Oh, and let’s not forget fringe candidate Jean Lassalle, who’s made himself famous for his … rather tacky antics on the campaign trail.

What’s happening between the two rounds? 

Well, people take a bit of time to think. While candidates usually schedule a string of eleventh-hour campaign events, one big moment is the traditional televised debate where the two finalists face off. It’s scheduled for April 20

Considered as one of the campaign’s highlights that will influence people’s votes, the debate is usually popular with viewers. In 2017, when Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen crossed swords on TV, the far-right leader’s disastrous performance led to a steep drop in the polls and damaged her credibility on economic issues. Count on her to come better prepared this time. 

The debate has been a tradition since 1974 but it’s not legally mandatory — in 2002, Jacques Chirac refused to engage with far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, who had for the first time made it to the second round in an upset win still vivid in France’s collective psyche. 

Who has an actual shot at winning? 

Emmanuel Macron is expected to come first on Sunday, and he’s polling ahead for the second round, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, with Le Pen likely to be his challenger again. But it may be premature to completely discount an upset somewhere down the line.

The French president entered the political arena at the last minute this year and his lackluster campaign has failed to make sparks fly. Recent revelations about the state’s over-reliance on consulting firms have also put a strain on his reelection bid. 

As the gap between France’s head of state and Le Pen in the second round has been steadily narrowing in the campaign’s final stretch, Macron’s camp has tried to energize its electorate with a bit of scare tactics. But there has yet to be a poll that indicates the president will lose. 

Will people actually show up?

The French are usually pretty diligent voters, turning out at rates of around 80 percent in recent presidential elections. But this year, abstention is expected to be much higher, with as much as 30 percent of the electorate expected to stay home.

French people are worn down by the coronavirus crisis and the war in Ukraine. And the perception of Macron as the inevitable winner as well as his low-key campaign haven’t helped. Both rounds also coincide with school holidays in various parts of the country.

For Macron, who faces his greatest challenges from the far right and far left, voter apathy presents a threat of its own. Not only might it favor his electoral rivals who can count on motivated bases to turn out for them; it presents his opponents with the opportunity to cast his expected reelection as lacking legitimacy.

Has Ukraine changed anything? 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February has overshadowed the French presidential campaign and helps explain why the turnout is expected to be so low. 

It benefited Macron in its early days, as far-right and far-left candidates had to explain or justify past comments praising Putin, while the French president cast himself as a war leader who can protect Europe. 

Overall, the war has shifted the French political conversation from identity issues and COVID to energy and purchasing power — which is actually the most important issue for voters. This shift has worked against Zemmour — whose political program based on the clash of civilizations seemed tone-deaf as people struggled to pay for gas — and in the favor of Le Pen, who had campaigned all along on decreasing the cost of living. 

Why should I care ? 

What’s at stake is the name of the person who will run France for the next five years, and as such will likely have a decisive influence over the EU. The election will also determine the shape of the country’s political landscape in the coming years. 

In 2017, the Socialist Party was ripped to shreds after Macron’s victory and has struggled to rebuild on its ashes ever since — Anne Hidalgo is not expected to gather more than 3 percent of the votes. Les Républicains — stuck between Macron, Zemmour and Le Pen — could face a similar fate after this election, as the conservative party’s future is arguably in the balance this time around, even more so if Valérie Pécresse scores under 10 percent. 

As none of the left-leaning parties is expected to win, what’s at stake for their six candidates is what the left will look like after the election, who will take the leadership and whether the Greens are actually a force to reckon with. 

Zemmour and Le Pen’s respective scores — as well as how easily they unite if one of them reaches the second round — could help shape the far right’s future, as many from the National Rally, including Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal, have joined the former TV pundit. Any chatter about a potential alliance between Le Pen and Zemmour ahead of the second round will be a must-watch.

I’ve heard there’s another election around the corner … is that right?

Yes. As parties have bickered for weeks over constituencies, strategies and alliances, France’s political class is already preparing for the next electoral milestone: the legislative elections in June, which will define the majority in the country’s National Assembly, or lower house of parliament.

Turnout is traditionally lower in the legislative elections, which also take place every five years. Voters tend to choose members of parliament who come from the same political family as the president they have just elected.

Nonetheless, if Macron does win, it could prove trickier to have an absolute majority in the National Assembly compared with 2017, as his potential victory is bound to be much narrower than five years ago. Meanwhile, he will have to consolidate alliances with powerful internal rivals such as heavyweight former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who is looking to expand his own political movement — dubbed Horizons.

Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting.

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