Could it soon be President Le Pen? Dissecting French election frontrunners

An extremist attack yesterday in Paris has cracked the French presidential election wide open. The Current explores the concerns of voters in the run-up to Sunday's vote.
Candidates for the 2017 presidential election (LtoR) Francois Fillon, former French Prime Minister, member of the Republicans and candidate of the French centre-right, Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche!, or Onwards!, Jean-Luc Melenchon of the French far left Parti de Gauche, Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and Benoit Hamon of the French Socialist party (PS). (Patrick Kovarik/Pool/Reuters)

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France heads to the polls on April 23, as tensions in the country rise from Thursday's gun attack in Paris that left a police officer dead. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

Incumbent president Francois Hollande is not running for re-election, creating an opening for the 11 candidates, including the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is among the frontrunners heading into the vote.

France Info reporter Ben Barnier has been crisscrossing France covering the election. He says the attack in Paris was front of mind for voters in Marseille, where he currently is.

"For those who were already convinced they were going to vote for Marine Le Pen, it just reinforced that," he tells The Current's Friday host Dave Seglins. 
Polls suggest French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader, as the frontrunner in the election. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

"And for those who do not want to vote for Marine Le Pen — and I spoke to many people of all ages — they were afraid the attack would reinforce turnout for Marine Le Pen. So this is probably the last thing most people wanted ahead of the election."

Barnier says many French citizens still connect terrorism attacks as a Muslim threat and politicians have been slow to make the distinction between specific attackers and the rest of the country's Muslim population.

There are four candidates who have separated themselves from the rest of the field. However, Barnier points to Le Pen as the frontrunner in many polls. She is advocating for a referendum on Frexit — whether France should also leave the European Union.

Emmanuel Macron is a centrist, independent candidate who is challenging Le Pen in several polls. Macron is a former banker and advisor to current President Hollande.
Reporter Ben Barnier compares Marine Le Pen to Hillary Clinton in how they both bring confidence to their campaign. (The Associated Press)

"He is a weird political animal," Barnier explains, noting that despite his work for Hollande, Macron is an outsider who has no ties to France's traditional political culture. Charismatic far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon is also polling well, as is conservative candidate Francois Fillon.

Barnier tells The Current he sees similarities between Le Pen and Hillary Clinton — not for her policies but for the confidence she has brought to her campaign. Her policies, which focus on border security and isolationism, skew much closer toward Donald Trump — just don't ask her if he is an inspiration.

"She was really annoyed by [that question]," Barnier says of asking Le Pen about Trump's influence on her own campaign.

"In her mind, the French don't need to get inspiration from Americans, whether it's Donald Trump or any other politician."

The most compelling aspect of the campaign Barnier says is how unpredictable it has been.

"It's such an open race. I have no idea who is going to win."

Even with widespread support for Marine Le Pen, he says there's a sense that her base may erode in later run-offs as she gets closer to the presidency.  

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ashley Mak.