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4 Front-Runners Set To Face Off In First Round Of French Presidential Election


The French will vote on Sunday in the first round of their presidential election. It's a tight race among four front-runners, most of whom are outside the political mainstream. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley says this French election is unlike any others in recent memory.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: For the last 60 years, France has been governed by the mainstream left or right. But this year the left is in chaos after the presidency of the ill-fated Francois Hollande. The center-right candidate is enmeshed in scandal. So as experienced statesmen have been cast to the wind, novices and fringe politicians have stepped in to fill the void.



EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Political newcomer Emmanuel Macron is packing them in at his rallies. The 39-year-old former investment banker who's never been elected to public office left his job as Hollande's economy minister to found his own political party.


MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The wunderkind of this campaign has soared in the polls despite criticism that he has no coherent program. In a recent televised debate, he said he would revolutionize France and make it innovative. Macron's far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, pounced on him.


MARINE LE PEN: (Through interpreter) You've been speaking for seven minutes, Mr. Macron, and you haven't said a blessed thing. Every time you talk, you say a little of this and a little of that, and no one knows what you stand for.

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen is one point behind Macron in second place. At a rally in Paris this week, Le Pen talked about stopping all immigration while her supporters chanted, this is our country. Political analyst Pascal Perrineau says France is deeply split.

PASCAL PERRINEAU: (Through interpreter) We see there are two Frances. One is doing well. But outside the cities you can find another France. It's immobile, unemployed and worried about its identity. A president must represent both sides of France, and these candidates only speak to one.

BEARDSLEY: Supporters of Francois Fillon cheer him at a rally. The mainstream conservative, seasoned politician and family man looked set to become the next president. Then came allegations that he'd created a state-funded fake job for his wife. Fillon is now under official investigation. He once described himself as the irreproachable candidate for the party founded by General Charles de Gaulle. Not anymore.


FRANCOIS FILLON: (Through interpreter) I'm not asking you to love me. I'm asking you to support me. It's not about choosing a friend. It's about choosing a leader for the destiny of France.

BEARDSLEY: Still, Fillon can't be counted out. The fiscally conservative former prime minister is the only candidate with experience running the country.


JEAN-LUC MELENCHON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In recent weeks, a fourth candidate has surged. far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon is now half a point behind Fillon. He, like Le Pen, opposes globalization and wants generous social benefits and protection for workers. Analyst Corinne Mellul says like Bernie Sanders, Melenchon attracts young voters who think he can really change things.

CORINNE MELLUL: Don't underestimate the constant popularity of Trotskyism and communist ideas. By communists, I mean Karl Marx, not the Soviet experiment. That has never died in France, you know? I guess it's part of what makes this country exotic.

BEARDSLEY: Faced with the choice between these four candidates, many French voters say they're frustrated or bewildered. Polls show up to 25 percent of them may choose not to vote at all. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALDECK'S "JERRY WEINTRAUB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.