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The French election, explained

Travel Destination: Paris Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When French voters go to the polls Sunday to begin picking their next president, the issues on the table are, without exaggeration, the future of Europe and the identity of France itself.

Eleven candidates are currently in the running, but just four have a real chance to move on to a two-person run-off election on May 7. The best-known candidate is far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has run on a campaign of populism and (mostly) subtle xenophobia. Her main competitor is centrist Emmanuel Macron, a rookie politician seeking elected office for the first time. Then there are the wildcards, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and center-right François Fillon.

The candidates couldn't be more different, and nor could their ideas for how to fix a France profoundly uncertain about its future.

France faces 10 percent unemployment, has suffered several high-profile and devastating terror attacks over the past two years (including a fatal shooting Thursday in central Paris), and has an incumbent socialist president, François Hollande, who is so unpopular he declined to run again.

Those three factors have made the election a total crapshoot. It’s meant that Macron, a total upstart from a brand-new party, is polling at the top of the heap, and two populists — one from the far-right and one from the far-left — are drawing raucous crowds and massive support. The true wildcard candidate, bizarrely, is the traditionalist, Fillon, but he was rocked by scandal throughout his campaign.

Le Pen and Mélenchon claim to want to pull France out of the European Union, the euro common currency market, and possibly even NATO. That means this election will have serious consequences for both the future of Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Ultimately, though, the reason the world is so focused on France right now is this: Le Pen, a far-right populist who has campaigned on closing French borders, banning immigration, leaving the European Union, and cracking down on “Islamic Fundamentalism,” has a real chance of winning power in a major Western European nation.

Here’s what you need to know about the French election, who’s running, and what’s at stake.

The frontrunners

The two most likely candidates to make it to round two are Le Pen, of the National Front, and Macron of En Marche! They are polar opposites.

Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972 and who has been prosecuted several times for minimizing the Holocaust. (He called gas chambers a mere “detail of history.”)

The party was well-known for its racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic views until the younger Le Pen took over in 2011. She has reshaped the party, dropped her father, and focused on rebranding the National Front as a protector against globalization and defender of French values, including secularism, against Islamist militants and “massive” immigration.

French Presidential Candidate Marine Le Pen Holds A Rally Meeting In Marseille Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

She would like to take France out of the European Union and the euro common currency, leave NATO, and reinstate border controls. She has campaigned on a radical reduction in immigration and, in recent days, has talked of banning all immigrants, at least temporarily. She rails against the “twin totalitarianisms” of globalization and “Islamic fundamentalism.”

She is a right-wing populist, with social welfare ideas that sound like the left, including keeping the workweek short, and lowering the retirement age. For Marine Le Pen, France is for the French.

Europe fears her. She has promised to hold a referendum on leaving the EU much like Britain did. One French official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the state, said such a move would be “the end of the EU, and the end of Europe, really.”

Emmanuel Macron, her rival, is the country’s — and the continent’s — last and best hope for a pro-European leader.

A mere 39 years old, Macron is a former banker turned socialist party minister who has never held elected office. His centrist party, En Marche! (which means “Forward!”) is so new it’s sometimes not even referred to as a political party but just a “movement.” He is a globalist who believes in the European Union, the euro, and a relatively free flow of movement at the borders.

French Presidential Candidate Emmanuel Macron Holds Campaign Rally Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

“Macron is a very fragile candidate. He's young. He has absolutely no experience,” a senior French official told me.

And yet, the same official added, “It may work because, in a sense, he looks different. He's not a traditional politician. He's a populist also from the center. He’s liberal, he's more European, and, again, he has never been elected. And in our system, it's never seen. In our political system, when you are a candidate it means that you have been around for 30 years.”

“Our election is extremely, totally unusual,” the official added, in an understatement.

The wildcards

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a far-left populist. He came from behind in a surprise surge in the last days of the election cycle. He too dislikes the European Union and the euro. His policies are so far to the left of the spectrum they make Bernie Sanders look like a right-winger.

A fan of Hugo Chavez, Mélenchon wants to impose a 100 percent tax on those who earn above €400,000 — effectively a salary cap — and channel that money into public spending on things like poverty reduction and job creation. He has proposed making the famously short French workweek even shorter, bringing it from 35 to 32 hours. Like many populists in Europe, he’s deeply skeptical of the European Union and international trade deals, and has even proposed taking France out of NATO and moving closer to Russia.

Left Parties And Unions Demonstrate on May Day Labour Day Photo by Trago/Getty Images

The 69-year-old Mélenchon is a former socialist who left the party in 2008 after having served some 30 years in various ministerial positions. He now heads a new party that is far to the left of the socialists, called France Insoumise — widely translated as “France Unbowed” or “Untamed,” but perhaps more evocatively translated as “Unsubmissive France.His supporters are called les insoumises, or the unsubmissives.

Francois Fillon, the conservative candidate of the Republican party, was “almost certain to be president — three months ago,” says Philippe Le Corre of the Brookings Institution. And then reports emerged that he allegedly paid his wife and children thousands of euros for jobs they did not do. He promptly dropped precipitously in the polls.

There were calls for him to drop out — he denied the allegations and refused to remove himself from the race. And perhaps he was right not to, because in recent weeks he has popped back up to a neck and neck position with Mélenchon for third place.

French Presidential Candidate Francois Fillon Hosts Rally Party in Lille Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

“If he makes it to second round that is because, even though he has been tainted by various scandals, he is seen as an experienced statesman,” says Le Corre. “The man has done every job in government. He was prime minister for five years.” He is seen as “qualified and competent.” Quietly, conservatives have returned to support him.

But what’s going to happen?

Already in March, pollsters showed "uncertainty unprecedented in [French] electoral history." And one final peculiarity of this very peculiar election? With one day left, the top four candidates are all within the margin of error. And some 30 percent of French voters have consistently indicated they will simply stay home.

Going into Sunday, Le Pen is just about even with Macron. (She has 22.5 percent to his 23.5 in the latest polls.) While most polls show her losing in round two to whomever the opponent will be, one outlier scenario has a hyper-energized National Front base pulling her to victory by a tiny margin if disaffected voters stay home.

But there’s still a chance that Mélenchon or Fillon could actually edge into the second round. That’s throwing everyone’s predictions off.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy told the press this week he feared the race could turn out to be a battle between Le Pen and Mélenchon, and that would be a disaster for the country. “France is being watched by the whole world,” he said. “And these two candidacies … are the opposite of what is appropriate in an open, modern country.”

Le Corre, of the Brookings Institution, laid out the stakes in a paper published this past week. “France,” he wrote, “remains an essential pillar of the European Union and of NATO. No German leadership can claim to relaunch the EU without the help of France. This is why the 2017 elections carry so much weight: If the Front National were to win either the presidency or parliamentary elections—the latter being extremely unlikely—this would mean the end of the European Union, which would play in the hands of American critics of the EU, such as senior White House advisers Stephen Bannon and Peter Navarro.”

By Sunday at 2 pm Eastern we should know the results.

This story is part of a Vox collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting about the upcoming French elections.