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Who will take on Le Pen?

With terrible approval ratings, high unemployment and sluggish economic growth, President of France François Hollande will not be seeking a second term of office. With the winds of populism running through global politics, will this be the far-right’s best chance to win a presidential election in Europe? The first round of the French Presidential Elections takes place on the 23rd of April, and what everyone wants to know is who will be taking on La Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the second round May 7th.

If you had asked this question a month ago, the answer you would have gotten would have been that François Fillon, who won the centre-right primary in November of 2016 and would represent Les Républicains (the renamed Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)), is the front-runner for the prestigious office. During the primary campaign he saw off challenges from former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppénce, but since then his campaign has fallen apart. Questions raised by satirical magazine Le Canard about the hiring of his English wife, Penelope, as a parliamentary assistant, and the possibility that it was a fake job which saw her earning nearly €1 million with little-to-no work to show for it, have caused mass resignations from his campaign. This, along with a police raid on his home, has caused Fillon to fall in opinion polls, and will make it very hard for him to bounce back. While many on the centre-right hoped that the Mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, would replace Fillon as their candidate, Juppé has ruled himself out, leaving Fillon to limp toward the elections.

The new front-runner, according to the polls, who will face Le Pen in the second round is Emmanuel Macron, the former Economy Minister under current Socialist President Hollande. Last April he formed a political movement, En Marché, which is neither right nor left but progressive. He hopes to bridge the divide in French politics, and this strategy seems to be paying off, with Fillon falling in the polls and Macron being the main beneficiary. While facing accusations that his plans are threadbare, he has been launching policies ahead of the official campaign which gets underway on April 10th. Recent polls show him finishing very close to Le Pen in the first round, and easily beating her in the second, though the recent American presidential election showed how deceiving polls can be.

When President François Hollande decided not to run for a second term, Le Parti Socialiste (PS) faced the task of finding a replacement. To do this they held an open-primary of the left. To the surprise of many observers Benoît Hamon, the one-time Minister of National Education, beat Manuel Valls to take on the challenge. Due to the rise of Macron, the PS are being largely ignored by the main press and foreign news correspondents.

Marine Le Pen, like Macron, did not face a primary to be selected. With the Front National receiving strong results in previous elections, and having failed to reach the second round in 2012 or 2007 under her father, Jean-Marie, the pressure will be on Le Pen to finish as one of the top two candidates.

While the assumption that Le Pen will make the second round is borne out by opinion polls, it seems that it is a bridge too far for her to win the Presidency. The French say you can vote with your heart in the first round; you only need to vote with your head in the second, and this year will be no different. Many voters will likely hold their nose and vote for the candidate that is not Le Pen in the second round, like they did in 2002 for Jacques Chirac.

There are a number of other candidates who have also qualified to be on the ballot in the first round by gaining 500 signatures of elected officials in France. These include the Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of Debout la France (France Arise), Communist Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle) and euro-sceptic François Asselineau of Union Populaire Républicaine (Union for the Popular Republic). They will more than likely be joined by leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France insoumise (Unsubmissive France) and the LaRoche candidate of Jacques Cheminade of Solidarité et Progrès.

With the United Kingdom giving notice under Article 50 at the end of March, and Germany going to the polls later in the year, this election could see Europe stay the course or change direction depending on the victor in La Belle France.