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The 2017 French Election: Everything You Need to Know

In a normal year, the French election might not be breaking news on this side of the pond. But 2017 is not a normal year.

After the “Brexit” decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union last June and the election of President Donald Trump in November, all eyes are on France, which could be the third domino to fall as a wave of populism threatens to turn into a tsunami.   

The 2017 French election, which is slated for April 23, has all the elements of political drama: the meteoric rise of the extreme right led by Marine Le Pen; crushing allegations of nepotism bringing down the center-right establishment candidate, Francois Fillon; an up-and-coming young political star, in Emmanuel Macron; and a socialist with an uprising of youth support, Benoit Hamon.

Beneath the intrigue lies the French political system that is in some ways quite different from the US one, and in other ways quite similar. The differences can leave Americans scratching their heads in confusion, so Frenchly is breaking it down for you, turning your vache-sized questions into fromage-sized answers.

French National Assembly. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Richard Ying and Tangui Morlier
French National Assembly. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Richard Ying and Tangui Morlier

How often do French elections happen?

Every five years.

Between 1962 and 2002, French presidents served 7-year terms that could be renewed indefinitely with no term limits.

In 2000, a constitutional referendum reduced the length of presidential terms from seven to five years, and in 2008, another referendum set a term limit of two terms.

When is this year’s election?

April 23 (first round) and May 7 (second round).

The first round of the election will take place on April 23. French presidents must be elected by a majority of the popular vote. If none of the five major candidates wins the majority of first-round votes (which has never happened), the top two vote-getters compete in a runoff election, slated for May 7, ensuring that someone will win a majority.

This two-tiered system diverges from the US one, and it could prevent an outsider candidate from winning the presidency.

An example of this came in 2002, when two conservative candidates won the highest percentages in the first round of voting: far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, and conservative incumbent president Jacques Chirac.

Jean-Marie Le Pen. Wikimedia Commons / staffpresi_esj

Le Pen was known for his Holocaust denialism and fervent anti-immigrant speeches (when asked about immigration in 2014, he responded, “Mr. Ebola can fix that in three months”). His nationalist rhetoric appealed mainly to blue-collar workers in the industrial northeast and older, wealthier residents of southeastern France.

Liberal voters—suddenly finding themselves without a candidate to support— were urged to throw their support behind conservative Chirac to prevent the election of the controversial Le Pen. (“Vote for the crook, not the fascist,” read one popular poster.)

The move worked, and Chirac rode this unorthodox coalition of neoconservatives and grumpy liberals to the biggest margin of victory in French history.

Do the French elect their parliamentary representatives at the same time as their president?


France is set to have its legislative elections in June, which could have huge ramifications.

Since this system was put in place in 2002, the party who won the presidential election also won the legislative. With the uncertainty of this year election a different outcome is not excluded. If Emmanuel Macron, the young centrist was to win, for example, the following legislative would be decisive, since Macron doesn’t have a party endorsing him so far.

Do the French use the terms “liberal” and “republican” the way we do?

No! In France, the definitions of libérale and républicaine vary widely. Liberalism refers to a set of doctrines that privilege the individual over the state, and aligns much more closely with free-market ideologies embraced by many US conservatives. Republicanism has a looser definition and is claimed by many parties but more often the Left — defending the idea that the republic (the government) must ensure the liberty of individuals.

What are the major parties, their candidates, and their policies?

• National Front (Front National – FN)

Marine Le Pen

The National Front, a right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-European Union party, was a footnote in French politics until Jean-Marie Le Pen’s surprising run in 2002. Though Le Pen lost the election, his political legacy succeeded him through his daughter Marine, the current FN candidate.

Marine Le Pen has ensured that her father not play a role in the FN, booting him from the party in 2015. Though the party’s nationalist leanings remain, she has significantly toned down her rhetoric, making hers a more viable and sanitized, but still radical candidate.

A National Front rally in May 2012. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Blandine Le Cain
A National Front rally in May 2012. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Blandine Le Cain

• Republican Party (Les Républicains – LR)

François Fillon

Francois Fillon was the safe candidate (and the frontrunner) in this year’s election -after he won the primary against former president Nicolas Sarkozy and others, until he was hit with allegations of nepotism that are derailing his campaign. In short, he created a government job for his wife Penelope that involved appearing at fundraisers and getting paid handsomely for it.

Penelopegate,” as it’s now being called, has distracted from the fact that Fillon is a strongly conservative candidate, especially on immigration and security policies and social issues.

• Let’s Go! (En Marche!)

Emmanuel Macron

The ex-Minister of Economy under current President Francois Hollande, Macron split off from the Socialist Party to launch an independent bid in November. His ascension as one of the leading candidates in the polls is a surprise to most observers.

Like Barack Obama in 2008, Macron has fired up France’s youth through promises to loosen labor laws and increase spending on education, while also hiring 10,000 police officers and padding the defense budget. Eschewing left and right, Macron has been called “a liberal centrist” and an “outsider,” but he does have government experience, having served as finance minister and a deputy secretary-general at the Elysée.

Emmanuel Macron in 2014. Flickr / OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS
Emmanuel Macron in 2014. Flickr / OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS

• Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste – PS)

Benoit Hamon

Though he inherited president Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party, Hamon is an entirely different breed. He has advocated for a universal basic income, the legalization of recreational marijuana, euthanasia, and opposed the controversial “Burkini ban,” despite members of his own party voting for it. With his youth support, he’s been labeled by some as the French Bernie Sanders.

And now the question you’ve all been waiting for: Can Marine Le Pen win?

Yes! Didn’t Donald Trump teach us anything?

Will she?

Probably not.

Electoral politics is a pendulum in France, as it is in the States, swinging back and forth from right to left. So, a swing from Hollande to Le Pen wouldn’t be unprecedented.

But even though Le Pen is forecast to garner the most votes in the first round of the election, she’s expected to fall short in the second round, provided liberals and centrists can coalesce around a candidate.

Ultimately the French elections are a referendum not only on the future of France, but the future of the European Union, globalization, and international human rights.

The French are more politically-activated than Americans, with well over 70% of people voting in elections. Perhaps, their piqued interest in politics will lead voters to make a rational decision based on local and global concerns.

The reality? Well, that’s another story.

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