From the far right to fake news, France's election is bitter, chaotic and wide open

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As voters across the western world constantly look for new answers to old problems, the phenomenon that swept Donald Trump to power and made Brexit a reality may yet cause a major upset in France.

Distrust of the mainstream parties of the left and the right leave it entirely possible that the far-right Marine Le Pen, or the hitherto little-known centrist Emmanuel Macron, will enter the Elysee Palace as president in May.

With the credibility of opinion polls damaged by the outcomes of the USA presidential elections and Britain's referendum on leaving the European Union, a volatile French electorate seems capable of choosing any of three candidates as new head of state.

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Francois Fillon – as a conservative – is the only conventional political figurehead currently seen as capable of defeating Le Pen and Macron, but must triumph over allegations of misuse of public funds to do so.

As in the United States and Britain's Leave/Remain campaign on EU membership, the roles of the media and professional pundits are at once under attack and, in the eyes of some, minimalized by a growing willingness to turn to populist or charismatic figures who promise to break the mould.

Then there is the possible impact of fake news. Macron – married to his former teacher, 24 years his senior – has already been targeted by rumours, blamed on Russian state media and denied by the candidate, of a past gay relationship

"The French election campaign is in a state of complete chaos," says Cecilia Gabizon, formerly a prominent journalist at Le Figaro, one of France's most authoritative daily newspapers, and now co-founder of the Street Press digital journalism school in Paris. "The electorate is divided and volatile."

Early skirmishing shows that old habits die hard. Despite the damage to the credibility of opinion polls inflicted by the largely unexpected Trump and Brexit victories, French media continues to treat the results of each new survey with respect and even excitement.

According to these polls, Marine Le Pen is easily ahead on first-round voting intentions, with the support of 26 per cent – or more – of those polled. Polls vary on whether Macron, whose one-nation En Marche movement gripped France in earlier campaigning, is slightly ahead of the conservative candidate Francois Fillon or neck and neck with him.

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Former French education minister Benoit Hamon (R), with former prime minister Manuel Valls (L) and French Socialist Party First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadelis (C) at their party headquarters in Paris on 29 January 2017Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

The official Parti Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, and the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon appear to occupy equal ground in joint fourth place.

Since Hamon represents the left of his party, the prospect of a common fight, with one standing down and campaigning for the other against Le Pen, Fillon or Macron for first-round ascendancy, might seem an obvious option. There previously seemed no chance of an accord but the two men have at least now agreed to meet, raising limited hopes of a unified broad left challenge.

According to conventional wisdom, supported by successive polls, Le Pen is likely to head the voting in the first round on April 23, only to be beaten by whoever then stands against her in the runoff two weeks later.

In 2002, her father, Jean-Marie, founder of their Front National party (FN) but sidelined since his daughter orchestrated his expulsion in 2015 after the latest of his Holocaust denial outbursts, also reached the second round. He was crushed as even Jacques Chirac's fiercest left-wing opponents turned out in force to prevent an FN victory.

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Marine Le Pen is a different proposition. She has enjoyed great success in "de-demonising" the deeply unpleasant image of her party without necessarily losing those supporters who still identify with what critics would call its far-right, even fascist origins. She claims to oppose Islam as a political ideology rather than being anti-Muslim and – to the consternation of liberal opinion – has managed to persuade many ordinary people, concerned about job losses, austerity and immigration, that hers is now a "party like any other".

On one recent poll's findings, she would gain 44 per cent of the second-round vote if Fillon were her opponent, comfortably beaten but not humiliated as was her father with a mere 18 per cent against Chirac. Like Fillon, Le Pen faces inconvenient accusations that she has benefited from the public purse from fictitious employment.

In Fillon's case, the fact that his Welsh-born wife, Penelope, and two of their children took money for little or no identifiable work on his behalf as a senior French parliamentarian is harder to overlook; Le Pen, arguably less damagingly, is alleged to have paid staff for EU-related duties when they were merely party employees.

But both face the prospect of eventual criminal proceedings and both have been keen to play the anti-press line, blaming a vindictive media – and, in Le Pen's case, a hostile political establishment – for their predicaments.

"It is worse for Fillon than Le Pen," says Marc-Olivier Padis, research director at the independent French think tank Terra Nova. "There is no sign of the voters following traditional affiliations or listening to what the media says.

"He is weakened at the core of his political message which was that if you wish to be president, you must be irreproachable. While calling for public spending to be carefully scrutinised, he is seen to be less vigilant when it comes to his own financial interests."

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The potential undoing of Fillon – in turn helping the rise of Macron – began with an explosive report in the weekly satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine.

One prominent French journalist, Francois Dufour, co-founder and editor-in-chief of a group of successful daily publications for children, says Macron – formerly an unelected minister in the socialist government – was aided by three factors.

First came his previous mentor Francois Hollande's decision not to stand for a second term as president, hardly surprising given Hollande's record low approval ratings.

Then came the primaries that established Fillon and Hamon respectively as the traditional candidates of right and left, and the "huge impact" of Le Canard Enchaine's revelations. "Those three factors have pushed Macron up," says Dufour.

But Padis feels Fillon and Le Pen – provided they are not charged with criminal offences before the election – can both end up profiting from feelings of unfair victimisation. There is no serious doubt that distrust of the media figures in the thinking of ordinary voters.

For Padis, there is a sizeable group of voters who rarely if ever read newspapers or follow online political coverage. From what they see on television or hear radio, added to instinctive concerns about immigration and terrorism, they decide Le Pen merits their support.

Many of these, says Padis, cannot fairly be compartmentalised in terms of the FN's traditional appeal to the extreme right.

Cecilia Gabizon, the former Le Figaro reporter now working in digital and broadcast journalism, agrees. She says her team's interviews with young voters, due to be screened in March, show an unexpectedly articulate element of support for Le Pen.

It is impossible to say with any certainty what the outcome will be

Gabizon senses growing disenchantment with the "cacophony" of the media, "everyone seeming to shout something, always bad news".

But she suggests Le Pen is not alone in profiting from the impression that the media is the enemy.

"At first, the Fillon affair destabilised the traditional right," she says. "Here was a man who preached the virtues of hard work and honesty and now seemed hypocritical.

"It was an important story but after more and more of the same, people got tired and he was able to say he was being victimised."

Observers of French political life contacted by IBTimes UK agreed that further examples of fake news could have an influence on the elections, but also that their targets could gain sympathy from portraying themselves as innocent victims.

For Padis, there remains one further factor whose impact on the final outcome on 7 May remains impossible to quantify: strategic voting.

"There are people who have to decide whether to vote not only in line with their own feelings but after evaluating the risk of a result they do not want, for example Le Pen becoming president," he says.

"How many strategic voters will there be? Will there be enough to affect the outcome? And how many of them will feel angry at feeling obliged to make a choice that is not really in accordance with their conscience?

"It is impossible to say with any certainty what the outcome will be."


Colin Randall spent 29 years at The Daily Telegraph as reporter, chief reporter, executive news editor and Paris bureau chief, was executive editor for the launch of The National (UAE) in 2008, and now freelances and edits websites from London and the south of France. He tweets at @salutsunderland


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