Je Ne Sais Quoi?

An ignorant American’s guide to the French election.

Candidates pose prior to a televised debate for the French 2017 presidential election in La Plaine Saint-Denis, France, on April 4.

Lionel Bonaventure/Reuters

There’s a presidential election in France on Sunday. Recently, when the staff of our better-dressed sister site asked what we thought of a televised debate between the candidates, we had to confess that no Slate staffer had watched it—and almost all of us had no idea there had been a debate for us to miss.

Obviously, we were in need of a last-minute education. Luckily,’s very knowledgeable editor at large, Jean-Marie Pottier, was happy to field our ill-informed questions.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jeremy Stahl: OK, Jean-Marie. Thank you for taking the time to chat. We’re here because’s editor in chief popped into a Slate Slack channel the other week to ask if we had any thoughts about the French debate that had just taken place, and literally everyone reacted like this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. That included me, a person with a French passport who now knows virtually nothing about what is going on politically in my mother’s native home. (Whoops!)

Here’s what I do know, or think I know: You’ve got a bunch of people running in the first round of an election that will likely head to a run-off. One of them is Marine Le Pen, who would as president be similar to our current administration over here in her neo-fascism/white nationalism/generally being a garbage person. I also know that she is the daughter of former presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is somehow even worse than his child.

Also, there’s some other boring people, one of whom is likely to be the next president of France. I think there’s a Micron (sic) guy who is the political outsider who’s very much still an insider, and a Fillion guy who is the traditional conservative party candidate but marred by scandal, and some socialist or communist guys nobody cares about. Please explain to me why all the things I just said are gross oversimplifications!

Jean-Marie Pottier: Hi Jeremy! You got almost everything right:

  • A probable runoff: Check. There are 11 candidates, and it is very likely that none of them will do better than 30 percent on Sunday, so we won’t know the name of our new president until May 7.
  • Marine Le Pen is our most Trumpian candidate, with one big difference: She’s the leader of a third party. Contrary to Trump, who managed to hijack the Republican nomination, she leads a party with barely any important political offices: two representatives, two senators, a few municipalities. She inherited the National Front from her father in 2011 and tried to distance herself from him and his racist and anti-Semitic stances. One big difference between father and daughter: She actually wants to become president; in 2002, when he got to the runoff, he appeared to be almost terrified by the prospect of winning.
  • Emmanuel Macron is the outsider-insider candidate. Outsider because he’s only 39, has never held any electoral position, and was barely known three years ago. Insider because he has a very high-profile résumé (the best French schools, the highest civil servant positions) and was one of current President François Hollande’s main advisers before betraying him.
  • François Fillon, the conservative candidate, was the 2-to-1 favorite to win last November when he got the nomination: The office was his to take. But during his campaign, he was weakened by two things: He has a very harsh Thatcherian economic platform, and most importantly, faced allegations about his use of public funds to give money to his wife and children when he was in the Parliament.
  • Benoît Hamon is the socialist no one cares about. A decent candidate with an interesting platform, but many socialist leaders who resented the way he fought Francois Hollande during his presidency chose to support Macron instead. This includes former Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

And I’m arriving now on your only mistake: We have a communist candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon—even if he is not in a strict sense the candidate of the Communist Party—but everyone cares about him now! If Macron was the surprise of the winter campaign at the beginning of the year, Mélenchon is the surprise of the spring campaign and has made a real breakthrough. Right now, Macron and Le Pen are polling at 23 to 24 percent each, Mélenchon and Fillon at 18 to 19 percent each, and Hamon at only 8 to 9 percent.

Jeremy Stahl: This is already fun and illuminating. Let’s take the candidates one-by-one. For Le Pen, the whole “distancing herself from the anti-Semitism and racism thing” doesn’t seem to be going so hot, so far as I can tell. That’s one of the very limited things I know about Le Pen, which I’ve gleaned whenever she’s made news in the U.S.

For one, she wants Frenchmen with dual citizenship (such as yours truly) to either drop their dual citizenship or give up their French. As I recall, she was specifically asked about Israelis and responded something like, “them too,” which is only a particularly touchy subject because of the National Front’s whole crypto-Nazism thing under her father. (This policy would harm far more dual-nationals from North African Muslim countries like Morocco and Algeria, I assume.)

Also, she recently said something like the Vichy were not responsible for their role in the Holocaust, or some such? I don’t know the details, it just sounded very awful. Are people still buying her phony-baloney “kinder, gentler National Front” crap at all? And do people even care if her party is still a xenophobic and anti-Semitic one?

Jean-Marie Pottier: The incidents around the National Front campaign have not surrounded racist remarks but financial scandals (about the use of public funds in Brussels), and the other candidates, maybe because of the Brexit/Trump experience, have tried not to stigmatize its voters. The Vichy episode you mentioned is ambiguous. Some people misread her comments and thought they were revisionist, that she was saying that French people did not participate in the deportation of Jews during World War II. Not at all.

Contrary to her father, she does not have, I think, a racist and anti-Semitic background (and by the way, the National Front has made some striking progress in the Jewish electorate). She was trying, quite strangely, to portray herself as a successor of Charles de Gaulle, who said that France was not responsible for the deportation of the Jews. That argument is that the Vichy regime, which is now seen as unconstitutional, was responsible, but not France in itself because real France was resisting the Nazis from London.

This position was changed at the national level, first by Jacques Chirac, and then the new position was perpetuated by his successors Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. All three presidents recognized that France, as a country, was responsible for its role during World War II because it was in reality deeply divided between collaboration and resistance.

This episode is revelatory because it showed Le Pen trying to get more presidential, to speak to a desire for French grandeur and a sense that we shouldn’t criticize our past. She sounded like someone who realizes that she’ll have to get more than 50 percent of the votes to win rather than just finish top of the heap in round one. But even if some of her ideas have broad appeal—a recent poll showed 52 percent of French people think Muslims have too many rights in the country, and 51 percent think the country welcomes too many migrants—Le Pen and her party don’t share that appeal. According to polling, 58 percent of the French people still think the National Front is a threat to democracy. When asked if the party represents a “patriotic right” or a “xenophobic and nationalist right,” 40 percent chose the first answer to 49 percent for the second answer.

Jeremy Stahl: That poll about Muslim rights sounds pretty deplorable to me, but I’m sure the U.S. would do similarly badly. I wouldn’t trust Le Pen on the subject of anti-Semitism as far as I could throw her (and I think I am related to some of the exact type of Jewish Le Pen voters you describe). Let’s move on to Macron, though. This is the guy who’s likely to win, right? And he’s, like, some media dude—both a construct of the media and a dude who worked in media. Is that correct, or did I invent both things?

Here’s the rest of my knowledge of Macron: I met a man from Lille, living here in Los Angeles, who was very torn about who he might vote for but hated Macron. He considered him an “elitist” in the worst possible way, and his comparison was to Hillary Clinton, who was somehow even worse in his eyes. I take it Lille is like France’s Michigan. Which, if so and Le Pen does as well there as Trump did in the Rust Belt, ruh-roh.

Jean-Marie Pottier: You’re right, Macron is the guy most likely to win, the one who is polling right now slightly ahead in the first round and at more than 50 percent against the three potential runoff opponents: Le Pen, Fillon, and Mélenchon. It is quite unusual because he is campaigning on a self-described “neither left nor right” platform that has never been very successful in French politics. Of course, he is widely criticized on both the left and the right. It is interesting because the northern region, like you said, is a kind of French Michigan, a former industrial belt in crisis where the left was very powerful and where Le Pen is polling high today—she got more than 40 percent of the votes in a local election in December 2015, and what you might call the equivalent of her district is 20 miles from Lille.*

At the same time, Lille is a socialist town whose mayor, Martine Aubry—Hollande’s opponent for the socialist nomination in 2012—is very outspoken against Macron. The traditional left thinks he has gone too far in his free-market platform. On the other hand, the right is attacking him by saying that he’s Hollande’s heir because he was his deputy chief of staff.

And there is a third kind of criticism, from both sides—mostly the radical left and the far right—which portrays him as the embodiment of the system with a capital S: He is seen quite sympathetically by the media, he studied in the best higher-education institutions, was a partner in a prestigious investment bank, and worked for a reforms committee set up by Nicolas Sarkozy five years before getting one of the highest jobs in the Hollande administration.

The comparison to Clinton you mentioned is interesting because there are many similarities—a compromise candidate and an insider, the strong favorite, the most popular candidate in the media—but I think two major differences. I had the feeling that Clinton was promising Americans more of the same and that the Democrats were unenergetic about her because they knew her too much and for too long. Macron is trying to portray himself as an outsider who will shake the system, and there is a curiosity about him in the electorate, but also a lot of uncertainty because we don’t know him. He’s only 39, and it’s the first time he’s running for political office!

Jeremy Stahl: So the Lille voter was considering Le Pen as a possibility. But that’s the weird thing about these radical culture-war and (white) nationalist movements like Trump, Le Pen, and Brexit: They can seem to break some of the old boundary lines surrounding liberal and conservative, at least economically speaking. In any event, I think I understand Macron more clearly now.

On to Hamon: Wouldn’t it be a good thing, as you said, that he fought Hollande during his presidency? I mean, isn’t Hollande like the most unpopular French president since, like, ever? And thus, wouldn’t opposing him early—especially at the risk of appearing heretical within the president’s own party—come off as a courageous and foresighted stand, worthy of praise and one that would ultimately be beneficial politically? Or is it just a thing where the socialist brand is so poisoned in France because of Hollande that nobody with that label attached to them can stand much of a chance in 2017? Also, whatever happened to Ségolène Royal?

Jean-Marie Pottier: Ségolène Royal is still here! She was harshly defeated when she tried to regain the socialist nomination in 2012, and now has a more senior role in the Hollande administration, as environment secretary. And she has not said yet if she would vote for Hamon or Macron in the first round.

The trouble with Hamon is that his fight with Hollande was ambiguous at first and is still ambiguous now. Part of his problem is that it’s still officially the president’s party, and Hamon is supposed to represent all its voters, including those loyal to his political adversaries like Hollande and Valls. Many leftist voters critical of Hollande have already flown to Macron—from the free-market wing—and Mélenchon—from the radical left wing.

Jeremy Stahl: How radical left are we talking about? And if he’s polling that well, does he actually have a shot to make it to the runoff? Or might left-leaning voters who are terrified Le Pen might be more likely to win in the second round if they support Mélenchon in the first round, driving down Macron’s numbers and causing a choice between two radical candidates, keep his numbers low enough for that not to be a real possibility?

Jean-Marie Pottier: From an American perspective, I think quite radical! For example, Mélenchon wants to implement a top marginal tax rate of 90 percent for annual incomes above 300,000 euros. Five years ago, he polled at 15 percent and ended up at 11 percent in the end because some of his voters chose to vote for Hollande to make sure he got to the runoff.

This year, he is polling around 18 to 19 percent, but things are a little different because he is the strongest candidate on the “classic left” block. He might benefit from a desire from leftist voters to have a “classic left” candidate in the runoff and from the support of protest voters. Polls show that leftist people might also vote for Macron to prevent a runoff between the right and the far right. So Mélenchon is a strong underdog, but an underdog. But things are so crazy here that pollsters have even tested a Macron–Mélenchon runoff!

Jeremy Stahl: Whoa! OK, I guess last (and possibly least): What is the deal with this Fillion guy? So, he defeated Sarkozy’s comeback or some such, then was rocked by scandal, and is now sort of doing OK? And I guess, as a final question, how was the candidate forum on Thursday? Oh, and if you’re handicapping right now, who do you think will make the runoff, and then who do you think will be the next president of the Republic?

Jean-Marie Pottier: If he’s not elected president on May 7, Fillon will become one of the biggest trainwrecks in French political history. When he surprisingly defeated Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé in the primaries last November, the election was his for the taking: He was polling at 30 percent in the first round and 65 percent in a runoff against Le Pen.

He then suffered from two problems. First, he won the primaries on a quite radical economic platform to distinguish himself from the other candidates. On health care, for example, he branded himself as a “French Thatcherite,” which is never really a popular thing here. That platform worked well with the primary voters, far less well with the French voters in general.

Then came the financial scandals that kind of unfolded in the fashion of matryoshka dolls: There was one scandal about his wife being employed by the Parliament, then one about his kids being employed by the Parliament with dubious student jobs, then one about high-priced suits offered to him by a political adviser who specialized in African issues, and so on.

It was especially problematic because he built his campaign on integrity: During the primaries, he said, in a clear allusion to Sarkozy’s past scandals, “Who could imagine De Gaulle being indicted?” Right now, he has stopped hemorrhaging in the polls but is around 19 percent, which is very weak for a conservative candidate.

Thursday night’s debate was surrealistic. You have to know two things. In the last weeks before an election, we have a total equality of TV speech time for all the candidates: The person who is polling at 0.5 percent must get the same exposure as the person who is polling at 30 percent.

The other thing is that we do not traditionally have debates before the first round, and only normally one before the runoff itself. We had, for the first time ever, an 11-candidate debate at the beginning of April, but Thursday night was supposed to be 15-minute interviews with all the candidates, with basically the same topics for everyone and no discussion between candidates.

Then, one hour after the start of the debate, the news of the Champs-Elysées shooting broke, the anchors announced it to the viewers and one after one, all the candidates who had not had their turns yet reacted to the attack. Then, at the end, there was supposed to be 11 closing statements by all the candidates, and of course everyone commented on the attack almost in real-time.

If I have to handicap the election, my guts tell me that Le Pen will be a little higher than polls show to get to around 24 to 25 percent, and Macron will benefit from the vote of leftists voters afraid of a Le Pen–Fillon runoff to finish a close second at around 23 to 24 percent, a few points higher than Fillon and Mélenchon.

Then, in the runoff, there will be the usual anti–Le Pen rallying from Hamon and Mélenchon voters, and a good share of Fillon voters around Macron, who should win with something like 60 percent, maybe a bit more. But don’t place too many bets. French politics have turned highly unpredictable in the last year! For example, Le Pen has been polling quite badly in the past few days, and the biggest surprise of all might be her defeat in the first round.

By the way, I have a final question: If I understood well, you have a French passport. Do you plan to vote on Sunday? :)

Jeremy Stahl: Ha. I didn’t get my ballot in time and haven’t lived in France in a decade, so I’m going to skip it. But I certainly now feel informed enough that I could have participated. Thank you, Jean-Marie!

*Update, April 21, 5:43 p.m. Eastern: This post has been updated to clarify the fact that what we would consider Le Pen’s district is 20 miles outside of Lille, rather than the entire region in which the vote was held.