A Nation Undecided

Europe's Fears over French Election Intensify after Paris Attack

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A terrorist attack in Paris three days before the French presidential elections is bound to have an impact on an already unpredictable run-off. Even if pro-EU candidates win though, by the end of the process, many French will have registered their dissatisfaction with the European Union’s status quo.

  • Facts


    • Polls suggest only six percentage points separate the top four candidates in France’s upcoming presidential election.
    • Despite the vast differences between the candidates, who span the political spectrum from the far-left to the far-right, more than a quarter of French voters are still undecided.
    • Regardless of the vote’s outcome, up to 50 percent of votes could go to anti-European candidates. Eight of the 11 candidates on the ballot are overt euroskeptics.
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APTOPIX France Paris Police Shot
Terrorism before the election: Police seal off the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris, France, after a fatal shooting on Thursday, April 20. Source: AP/Kamil Zihnioglu

It was clear to other European nations that as the presidential elections approach, the French were a nation divided. Or perhaps, more accurately, a nation undecided. Over the past few weeks, polling has consistently shown that close to a third of French voters were still not sure who they would be voting for.

Recent gains in popularity for vehemently anti-EU candidates has worried politicians in Germany and other members of the European community.

The question now is whether the latest terrorist attack, claimed unusually quickly by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, currently inspiring terrorist acts around the world and causing havoc in Iraq and Syria, will firstly, push the French public towards anti-EU candidates who say they are tough on security, and, secondly, motivate those undecided voters.

The candidates in the presidential race have all made statements about the attack on Thursday night in central Paris, during which a man shot at police officers, killing one officer and seriously wounding two others before being shot dead himself.

For all intents and purposes, there is no clear favorite - an anomaly in the history of French elections.

The top four presidential candidates – the pro-European Emmanuel Macron, the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, conservative François Fillon and the far-right Marine Le Pen – are neck and neck. Polling suggests that the difference between them is within the margin of error. That is without taking into account all the undecided voters and those eligible to vote who may or may not turn up to cast a ballot. As a result the French presidential elections are looking even more unpredictable than they were one day ago. To all intents and purposes, there is no clear favorite – an anomaly in the history of French elections.

Ms. Le Pen, who has campaigned on an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform, expressed her anger at the attacks, saying that the authorities were not doing enough to prevent such attacks. She reportedly told RFI radio that, “today fundamentalist Islam is waging war and… the measures are not being taken to limit the risks.”

Although Ms. Le Pen was widely expected to be one of two top candidates who make it into the final run-off vote on May 7, her party, the Front National, has not been doing as well recently. It is quite possible that the events of Thursday night could see potential voters more sympathetic to Ms. Le Pen’s policies.

The terror attacks could also impact the support that Mr. Macron has. He is the other candidate thought to be most likely to get into the final run-off, albeit with a fairly small margin according to the latest polls. If Mr. Macron, who was France’s economy minister in the Socialist government between 2014 and 2016, has a weak spot, it is the security portfolio. Ms. Le Pen has repeatedly criticized her rival about this topic.

But as Mr. Macron told RTL Radio that “there is no such thing as zero risk … anyone who says that they can make it otherwise is both irresponsible and a liar.”

Meanwhile the other most-likely-to candidates have also reacted. Mr. Fillon has suspended campaigning – as have Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron – and paid tribute to the local security forces. Mr. Mélenchon has said that the democratic process should not be stopped, that people should not overreact and he tweeted that “terrorist attacks will never go unpunished.”

France Election
A supporter of presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, glues a campaign poster next to a poster of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Source: AP/Bob Edme

All this leaves not just France but all of Europe on tenterhooks, just two days before the election. Because a victory for Ms. Le Pen, a nationalistic xenophobe who would like to see France out of the EU, or her far-left counterpart, Mr. Mélenchon, who has roused a similarly euroskeptic sentiment among his followers, could sound a death knell for the European project.

Such a victory this Sunday and in a run-off vote in two weeks is unlikely, but more unexpected things have happened in the last year.

Should Mr. Macron make it to the run-off election, he has been given the best odds of winning compared to any of his potential opponents. It is also entirely possible that Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Fillon will be the ones to face off in early May. Should that be the case, predictions favor Mr. Fillon, but by a much narrower margin than if Mr. Macron were the one going against Ms. Le Pen.

Even Mr. Mélenchon, who was relegated to fifth place in the elections four years ago, has a chance at making it into the final round. According to the polls, he would lose against Mr. Macron and Mr. Fillon, but win against Ms. Le Pen.

France’s European neighbors aren’t the only ones worried about a potential mandate for an extremist party after the election. The financial markets are uneasy too. Yields on French government bonds have doubled since November, but even those don’t capture the true extent of the problem.

Undecided though many voters may be, their options are fairly clear: Either vote for a moderate candidate or an extremist.

Half of French people who show up on Sunday want one thing: The end of the EU.

Mr. Fillon may make fun of Mr. Macron by referring to him as “Emmanuel Hollande” or “François Macron,” and Mr. Macron may decry the “brutality” of Mr. Fillon’s proposed policies, but the two political moderates have more in common than what divides them. They both want an open, cosmopolitan and economically strong France that is part of Europe. Mr. Fillon wants to save more while Mr. Macron prefers to put more emphasis on qualifications and digital progress. Mr. Fillon has sympathy for Russia, while Mr. Macron prefers Germany. And Mr. Fillon caters more to the country’s Catholics, while Mr. Macron tries to speak to the youths of the Banlieue, French shorthand for big city suburbs.

But they have far more in common with one another than with Mr. Mélenchon and Ms. Le Pen, their competitors within that margin of error. The latter two are so far out on the fringes of the political spectrum, whether left or right, that their populist rhetoric shrouds anti-liberal policies that would see France retreat behind national borders.

Mr. Mélenchon’s anti-European, anti-German tirades are so virulent and merciless that they have even alienated some of his most ardent Communist supporters. His praises for national sovereignty has made them uncomfortable.

But even if Mr. Mélenchon and Ms. Le Pen fail to make it to the second round, 50 percent of voters will have voted for one of them. In other words, half of French people who show up on Sunday want one thing: The end of the EU. Eight of the 11 candidates on Sunday’s ballot are confirmed euroskeptics.

“This is a France beset by fear. The inner tension has reached a climax,” Charles-Edouard Bouée, the CEO of the Munich-based consultancy firm Roland Berger, has written in a guest commentary for Handelsblatt.

This fearful Fifth Republic wants to turn its back on globalization and Europe, but also on Germany. That’s why so many red flags have been raised in Berlin and it’s why German politicians will be on the edge of their seats this Sunday.

But even if Mr. Macron or Mr. Fillon ends up victorious, France’s problems won’t be solved. After the elections, the new president will still face an impasse this summer at the National Assembly. Any defeat of the extremists would be only the beginning of France’s long journey back into the heart of Europe.


Thomas Hanke is the Handelsblatt’s Paris correspondent. Andrea Cünnen works at Handelsblatt’s finance desk in Frankfurt, reporting on bond markets. Cathrin Schaer is an editor for Handelsblatt Global and contributed to this article. To contact the authors: hanke@handelsblatt.com,  cuennen@handelsblatt.com

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