Explainer: What you need to know about France’s presidential election

French voters head to the polls for the first round of presidential elections on Sunday after a muted campaign overshadowed by the war in Ukraine. FRANCE 24 takes a look at how France’s two-round presidential election plays out.

Some 48.7 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday’s presidential contest, choosing from a field of 12 candidates who are vying to lead the European Union’s second-largest economy and its only nuclear power. 

President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to become the first incumbent to win re-election since Jacques Chirac in 2002. His challengers range from a Communist on the left to anti-immigration candidates on the far right.

The two candidates who garner the most votes will qualify for the election’s second and final round on April 24

Who are the candidates?

Twelve candidates have made it onto the official ballot – including seven who also ran at the last election in 2017. They span the political spectrum, with half representing extremes to the left and right of France’s mainstream. A third are women vying to become the nation’s first présidente.

>> Read more: Who are the candidates in France’s presidential election? 

Candidates include the 2017 finalists Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, who is making a third run for the Élysée Palace. Other veterans of past campaigns include leftist candidates Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud; nationalist right-winger Nicolas Dupont-Aignan; and centre-right ruralist Jean Lassalle.

The newcomers are Eric Zemmour, a far-right former TV pundit; Valérie Pécresse, the conservative head of the Paris region; Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris; Yannick Jadot of the Greens; and Fabien Roussel, the Communist Party candidate.

Posters of the 12 candidates running for the French presidency. © Benoît Tessier, Reuters

Who votes?

All French adults born on or before April 9, 2004 – i.e., who are at least 18 years of age on the eve of the first round – are eligible to vote, provided they are registered on the electoral roll. 

Most voters had until March 4 to register, although some enjoyed a grace period until 10 days before the first round. They include those recently naturalised as French and those celebrating an 18th birthday or moving house in the home stretch of the campaign. 

>> Read more: After Brexit betrayal, British-born comic takes first vote as a Frenchman seriously

On election day, registered voters must head to their assigned polling station – often a local school – to cast their ballots. They can either cast one of the official ballots they received by mail or use an identical one available at the polling station.

Registered voters normally receive an “electoral card” by post ahead of the election. If you are registered but don’t have an “electoral card”, you can still vote as long as you show proof of identity at your local polling station.

>> Click here to find out whether you are registered and where you should vote

When will results come in?

French overseas territories begin voting on Saturday to take account of the time difference, starting with Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Canada, followed by territories in the Caribbean, the Pacific and finally the Indian Ocean.

Polls open across mainland France at 8am local time (6:00 GMT) on Sunday. They will close at 7pm local time in most places and at 8pm in the larger cities including Paris. The first exit polls will be published once voting has ended everywhere, at 8pm.

A voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France.
A voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Le Touquet, northern France. © Christian Hartmann, AFP

Exit polls generally give a good indication of which two candidates are set to qualify for the second-round run-off. Those exit polls will be updated throughout the evening, based on preliminary vote counts.

Official results will be published on the Interior Ministry website

Why two rounds of voting?

General Charles de Gaulle – a founding father of France’s Fifth Republic and its 1958 constitution – was famously suspicious of political parties. He sought to curb their influence with a two-round voting system designed to choose France’s leader by direct universal suffrage (starting with himself, in 1965).

Technically, a French president could win office in a single round of voting by scoring more than 50 percent of the vote – but no contender for France’s top job has ever managed that feat. In practice, the run-off vote decides the winner between the two candidates who won the most votes in the first round.

>> Read more: How does France’s two-round presidential election work? 

A common refrain is that the two-round system allows voters to choose with their hearts in the first round and with their heads in the second. De Gaulle’s thinking was that the system would ultimately unite the country behind the candidate with the most consensus. However, the final presidential run-off is sometimes cynically described as a choice between “the lesser of two evils”.

What is the ‘silence électoral’?

At midnight on Friday, France entered a period of “electoral silence” during which French media are barred from quoting candidates or publishing opinion polls to ensure they don’t unduly influence voters.

These rules also apply to candidates and their teams, who are strictly barred from campaigning in the last 44 hours before polling stations close at 8pm on Sunday.

Why the election matters to the world

The two-round election will determine who runs the European Union’s second-largest economy as the war in Ukraine rages on the bloc’s doorstep.

France is the 27-member bloc’s second economy, the only one with a UN Security Council veto and its sole nuclear power. As the war drags on in Ukraine, French leadership will help shape Europe’s response. 

The bloodshed unleashed by Russian forces in Ukraine has upended the presidential campaign, putting international affairs at the heart of the debate. It has also cast a spotlight on the candidates’ very different stances on France’s commitment to NATO. 

>> Read more: Ukraine war puts France’s NATO-sceptic candidates in the spotlight

What are the dominant issues? 

The sinking purchasing power of many French families has emerged as voters’ top concern amid rising food and energy prices – with the war in Ukraine spurring galloping global inflation. 

Immigration received plenty of attention in the first months of campaigning, pushed by far-right candidates. Health and the climate crisis also ranked high among voter concerns, though many felt such topics were insufficiently addressed – partly because the war in Ukraine overshadowed them. 

>> Read more: Climate can wait – French election campaign ignores ‘humanity’s greatest challenge’

Abstention fears

The sense that France’s “phoney campaign” failed to address many key issues has heightened fears of low turnout. 

Losing faith in democracy: France’s abstention problem

Losing faith in democracy: France's abstention problem
Losing faith in democracy: France’s abstention problem © FRANCE 24

The Présidentielle traditionally attracts the most French voters – far more than parliamentary elections. However, turnout has decreased from 84% in 2007 to about 78% in 2017, and studies show that abstention this time may be even higher. A low turnout could have a major impact on the vote, pollsters have warned, noting that young and low-income voters appear less certain to go to the polls than retirees and more affluent people.   

The current abstention record was set in 2002 when 28.4% of voters failed to go to the polls in the first round. The low turnout was described as a key factor in allowing far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen to qualify for the run-off, at the expense of Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, who was once seen as a sure bet to make it to the final round. 

French presidential election
French presidential election © France 24

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