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The French Election, Explained For Americans

Eleven candidates, two votes, and a bunch of scandals.

Last updated on April 20, 2017, at 10:53 a.m. ET

Posted on April 19, 2017, at 6:14 a.m. ET

Bonjour! It's presidential election season in France, and this year a lot more people than usual are paying attention.

Jean-paul Pelissier / Reuters

Many are watching to see if France will join the wave of populist nationalism sweeping the globe, with far-right leader — and Trump admirer — Marine Le Pen running a close second in the latest polls.

Jean-paul Pelissier / Reuters

This being France though, things are a ~little~ complicated. The election includes two separate votes: a first round on April 23, between the 11(!!!) presidential hopefuls, and a May 7 runoff between the top two, if no candidate earns more than 50% of the votes.

Jean-paul Pelissier / Reuters

(There has never NOT been a second vote. Currently the top four candidates are polling at around 19–23% each.)

This system means it's possible for a candidate to win the first round of the election but lose in the second. Weird? Well, not if you can think of a electoral system where you can lose the election even after winning the popular vote.

Philippe Laurenson / Reuters

OK — allons-y! Let's meet some of the people who want to be the next president of France.

We also have a quick rundown that compares the candidates to different kinds of Haribo candy, if you want the short and, um, sweet version.

This is Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old independent who resigned from his post as President François Hollande's economy minister so he could run for president. At the moment, he's narrowly leading the first-round polls (23.1%) and favored to win handily over Le Pen in the second round.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

Macron is a centrist who would like you to know that he's neither left nor right, but ESPECIALLY not part of ~the establishment~. But that's not really true given his resume as a former investment banker, and his comment, for example, that "young French people are needed who want to become billionaires." He's also been criticized as a political weathervane without a coherent platform.

However, if you've visited France recently and managed to go shopping on a Sunday, you can thank him for that.

Just behind Macron in the first-round polls (22.4%), there's Marine Le Pen of the far-right, anti-globalization, anti-immigration National Front. She's a fan of horses, as you can see by her campaign office decor.

Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

Le Pen took over as leader of the National Front in 2011 from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972. She's successfully worked to bring the once-fringe National Front into the mainstream, playing up her femininity to temper its racist image and publicly distancing herself from some of her father's more extreme positions (she kicked him out of the party in 2015 for denying the Holocaust). Her campaign stresses the downsides of globalization and the need for a strong national identity.

BuzzFeed News spent a night with the French far-right on the sidelines of a Le Pen campaign event in Lyon in February, where jokes about gas chambers, Nazi salutes, and high-level figures in Le Pen's circle were all in the mix.

Young National Front voters told BuzzFeed News that there is "an awareness that this time we could conquer the Élysée," though many of them said they don't openly talk about their support for Le Pen.

Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

Next we have François Fillon, the scandal-dogged Republican candidate, currently tied for third in the first-round poll (19.3%). He served as Nicolas Sarkozy's prime minister from 2007–2012.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

In France, as in the US, the Republicans are a right-wing party — though not as hardline as the National Front — and Fillon's policies were quite a bit further to the right than his competitor in the primary.

At the beginning of this year, Fillon was favored to win the second round over Le Pen — until a French newspaper reported that he had allegedly paid his wife with state funds for work she didn't actually do.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

This type of arrangement is so common in France, where it is somehow not illegal for politicians to employ their spouses and children in ~real~ jobs, that there's a term for it: emploi fictif, or fictional employment. BuzzFeed News also found that two of Fillon's assistants appear to have been paid improperly.

And despite the opening of an official investigation into Fillon's case and calls for him to step down — the photo above is from a protest outside a campaign rally — he's still in the race.

Neck and neck with Fillon in third place is far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He's surged in the polls over the last few weeks, surprising a lot of people.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

(In France, "far-left" means to the left of the Socialists — he's allied with the French Communist Party.)

His political movement, “La France Insoumise,” is often translated into English as "Unsubmissive France", which is...uh...awkward.

Universal Studios / Via

The other variations, "Indomitable France," "France Unbowed," "France Untamed," and "Rebellious France," aren't much better, tbh.

Anyway, Mélenchon's vision of an unsubmissive/indomitable/unbowed/untamed/rebellious France includes taxing the country's richest people 100%, reducing the workweek to four days, raising the minimum wage, transitioning to renewable energy, and staying out of new free trade agreements.

Jean-paul Pelissier / Reuters

He also wants to drop out of NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund — and maybe stop using the euro.

Mélenchon's rise hasn't been good for Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, who's dipped to 8% in the latest polls. He doesn't have a great shot at advancing to the second round, but he does have some of the best campaign pictures.

Regis Duvignau / Reuters

Here he is wearing a bullfighter's bolero jacket during a campaign rally.

Here's Hamon with a rugby ball, also for reasons unknown.

Regis Duvignau / Reuters

And here he is tasting a strawberry.

Regis Duvignau / Reuters

Beloved by the internet but well out of second-round contention is anti-capitalist candidate Philippe Poutou. Here he is at the presidential debate, where he became a fan favorite for giving zero fucks (he wore jeans).

Pool / Reuters

He got a little more than 1% of the vote when he ran in 2012, and he took a leave of absence from his job at a Ford factory in order to campaign.

That's six of the 11 candidates. (Je m'excuse, you can google the others.)

To recap, of those who are currently polling in the top four, only two candidates will advance to the final vote after this weekend's first round.

Regis Duvignau / Reuters

But as we've learned, the last year hasn't been great for polls, so really, anything could happen!

Speaking of polls, here's your chance to vote on something. Which one of the translations for Jean-Luc Mélenchon's political movement, “La France Insoumise," do you think makes the most sense?

  1. Which is the best translation?

Oops. Something went wrong. Please try again later
Looks like we are having a problem on the server.
Which is the best translation?
    vote votes
    "Unsubmissive France"
    vote votes
    "Rebellious France"
    vote votes
    "France Unbowed"
    vote votes
    "France Untamed"
    vote votes
    "Indomitable France"
    vote votes
    Something else I'll tell you about in the comments

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.