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ELECTION

Who to choose in France’s election? 40 percent of voters still not sure

There's just a month to go until the first round of France's presidential election - and still 40 percent of voters don't know who to choose.

Who to choose in France's election? 40 percent of voters still not sure
Photo: AFP
Having a flutter on the horses in his local bar, Eric Belouet picks his favourites without hesitation. But when it comes to France's presidential election, he can't make up his mind.
   
“Really, I can't,” said the 59-year-old, his eyes on the TV screen broadcasting the races. “I'm on the right. But for Francois Fillon, it's over.”
   
Belouet, a former funeral goods salesman who lives in the little town of La Ferte-Saint-Aubin in central France, said “the door had been wide open” for Fillon to become president when the country votes in the two-round election on April 23 and May 7.
   
But that was before Fillon's campaign was rocked by multiple scandals over expenses and conflicts of interest, including allegations that he paid his wife for years as a parliamentary assistant with little evidence that she did any work.
   
Unable to forgive Fillon, Belouet finds himself among the 40 percent of voters who have yet to decide how they'll vote with less than a month to go — or even if they'll show up on election day at all.
   
It is the highest rate of indecision France has ever seen at this point in a presidential campaign, and adds yet another element of uncertainty to one of the most unpredictable elections in living memory.
   
For Anne Jadot, a political science professor at the University of Lorraine, it is the string of scandals and surprises in the campaign so far that have left so many voters on the fence.
   
“This has created a lot of uncertainty and unexpected developments, so we're talking less about the issues and policies,” Jadot told AFP.
 
Going fishing
 
La Ferte-Saint-Aubin was divided at the last election in 2012, voting narrowly for rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of the eventual winner Francois Hollande.
   
Five years on, many in the quiet red-brick town of 7,400 people, at the edge of the hunting forests of Solognes, could hardly be bothered with politics in this election cycle.
   
“At the outdoor market, only one person in 20 talks to me about the presidential election,” says Constance de Pelichy, the town's conservative mayor.
   
“It's worrying, because that shows a lack of interest.”
   
France endured many months of speculation before knowing who was actually running for president.
   
Hollande held off until December to announce he would step down, forgoing a run for re-election after five difficult years at the helm.
   
It then took until late January, after a two-round primary, for Benoit Hamon to emerge as the Socialists' candidate.
   
On the right meanwhile, Fillon suffered weeks of pressure to abandon his presidential bid because of the fake jobs scandal, but he has insisted on staying in the race, even after being formally charged with misuse of public funds.
   
“There's major confusion,” sighed 65-year-old Jacques Drouet as he sat in the 1960s-style bar in La Ferte-Saint-Aubin.
   
“We're trapped between voting with our hearts and voting tactically,” said the former trade unionist, who usually votes on the left.
   
The typical election scenario is for the French to vote for their favourite candidate in the first round before trying to eliminate their least favourite in the second.
  
Drouet's ideas are closest to Hamon's — but he's considering breaking with tradition and voting for centrist Emmanuel Macron even in the first round, hoping to minimise far-right leader Marine Le Pen's chances of making it into the run-off, as polls predict she will.
   
For many, the most dramatic example of tactical voting was in 2002, when Le Pen's father Jean-Marie Le Pen rocked the political establishment by reaching the runoff. In that second round, voters of various political stripes reluctantly got behind conservative candidate Jacques Chirac to block the far right.
   
This time, the major remaining unknown is who will face Marine Le Pen. Fillon started the campaign as her most obvious rival, but the scandals have battered his ratings. Polls predict that Le Pen is most likely to square off against Macron,  formerly seen as an underdog, at the May 7 run-off vote.
  
But if her opponent is Fillon, Drouet said: “I'd leave my ballot blank as things stand now.”
  
Other undecided voters are planning on simply staying away on election day, meaning abstention rates could be high — perhaps beating the 20 percent who abstained in 2012.
  
Eric Belouet is contemplating doing something else on April 23 instead of heading to the ballot box — going fishing, perhaps, though not even that is a certainty.
   
“It'll depend on the weather,” he said.

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ELECTION

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”

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