France goes to polls under shadow of terror and political uncertainty

Four of the 11 candidates stand a chance of reaching the May 7th run-off

The campaign for the first round of the French presidential election has closed under the shadow of jihadist violence and with widespread misgivings about the outcome of the vote on Sunday.

The issues confronting France had taken a back seat to financial scandals and the flawed character of the candidates, but terrorism suddenly became the main issue when Karim Cheurfi, a 39-year-old Frenchman with four convictions for violent crime, murdered a policeman and wounded three other people on the Champs-Éysées on Thursday night, 72 hours before polling stations were to open. Cheurfi was shot dead.

The government has mobilised 50,000 police and gendarmes and 7,000 soldiers to protect polling stations, which will be equipped with mobile telephones pre-programmed with emergency police numbers.

Four of 11 candidates stand a chance of reaching the May 7th run-off in the race to succeed François Hollande as president: the centrist Emmanuel Macron, the extreme right-wing leader Marine Le Pen, the conservative François Fillon and the far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Opinion polls indicate that each commands support estimated at between 19 and 24 per cent.


French police, large numbers of whom support Ms Le Pen's Front National (FN), demonstrated in several towns and cities yesterday over the shooting of their colleague. They demanded to know why a man who had repeatedly attacked police, and who had threatened in recent months to kill police in retaliation for the deaths of Muslims in Syria, was at large.

Defeat jihadism

Before the attack, close to 30 per cent of voters told pollsters they would abstain in the first round of the election. Voting was portrayed by commentators on Friday as the most effective way to defeat jihadism.

There was broad speculation that the attack could affect voters' choices. "In a campaign without a theme, strongly marked by the desire to break with a denigrated political system ... all of a sudden the bonus no longer goes to adventure, but to force, to protection," said Françoise Fressoz of Le Monde.

Mr Macron, at 39 the youngest and most inexperienced candidate, could be at a disadvantage, in spite of his narrow lead in the opinion polls. He stressed that he was ready to govern, and that the role of a president was to “protect the French”.

Ms Le Pen, running a close second in the polls, accused conservative and socialist governments of the last decade of having “done everything for us to lose” what she called a “pitiless, relentless war” waged against France by “Islamist terrorism”.

Campaigning officially ended at midnight on Friday.

US president Donald Trump told the Associated Press that the attack would help Ms Le Pen, who has praised him.

Top priority

If he wins, Mr Fillon promised to make the “war” with what he calls “Islamic totalitarianism” the top priority of his term in office.

Bernard Cazeneuve, the socialist prime minister, accused Ms Le Pen and Mr Fillon of exploiting the tragedy for electoral gain.

The fact that France could send Ms Le Pen and Mr Mélenchon to the run-off, forcing voters to choose between extreme right and extreme left, has spooked financial markets. "There is worried waiting for the French election results," Christine Lagarde, a former French economy minister and the director of the International Monetary Fund, told Le Monde.

Ms Le Pen and Mr Mélenchon included plans for leaving the euro zone and Europe in their programmes, though they softened their positions somewhat in recent days, in the face of opinion polls showing that close to three-quarters of the French want to remain in the euro.

Ms Le Pen and Mr Mélenchon lent a revolutionary tone to the campaign by railing against a privileged “caste” which they promised to overthrow. They portrayed Mr Fillon, a former prime minister, and Mr Macron, a former economy minister, as representatives of the elite. All four styled themselves as outsiders and enemies of an entrenched “system” that they vowed to end.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor