Angry and tired French voters flirt with outsiders for top job: Nahlah Ayed

Many French voters are fed up with their political system and eager for change ahead of the first round of the presidential election on Sunday. But that change could have a major impact well beyond the country's borders.

Security, political upheaval biggest risks in upcoming French vote

Supporters of far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon listen closely as he speaks to a crowd of thousands in Lille, France, on April 12. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC News)

Under the protection of some 60,000 police and soldiers, France, with today's vote, is formally flirting with risk.

With the ongoing threat of attacks like the Champs Elysée shooting on Thursday night, and the tension of hostile political competition, the presidential election period was always going to be perilous.

It's why the Interior Ministry has taken such extraordinary measures to protect voters during this pivotal period.

It's why France is still under a state of emergency imposed after the deadly attacks of 2015.

But the other major risk facing France now is of the political kind.

Upstart or outlier 

After the first round of voting on Sunday, one, if not both, of the candidates still standing for president will likely be either an upstart or an outlier.

By the final round of voting on May 7, France — NATO member, stalwart of the European Union — could find itself led by a political novice from a party that's never been in office, or possibly one that's bent on sweeping, even convulsive change.

Tired of the old political system, many French people say those are risks they're willing to take.

"There's been a kind of simmering anger for some time, people feeling like they've been betrayed," said Ian Brossat, an activist and would-be candidate for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

"So parties that have not been in power are doing well. There's some logic to that."

Supporters of Mélenchon hand out campaign material outside his rally in Lille. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC News)

Logical, maybe. But a far-left or far-right populist at the Elysée Palace would have transformative consequences well beyond Paris, and either prospect leaves the European Union and the markets anxious. 

The French are in a disruptive mood. They're seemingly eager to break the old system and reward self-styled agitators.

"The system is not dead. We feel it should die," said Claude Askolovitch, an author and journalist. "We don't know how to replace it because replacing it would be admitting that our old pyramidal structure, our old French ways of doing things — [that] some king, some General De Gaulle, some Louis XIV, some Napoleon, some Mélenchon will save us — is not working anymore."

But would-be kings have emerged all the same, casting themselves as the answer to this desire to upend the political system.

The extent of the risk depends on the candidate.

Four-way race

In the first round of voting that begins Sunday, a list of 11 candidates with a range of political stripes is likely to be whittled down to two. A second round of voting will be held on May 7. President François Hollande is so unpopular he chose not to run.

Of those on offer, the anti-establishment candidates have consistently been among the front-runners, making for an unpredictable and tight four-way race.

François Fillon, left, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen are in a tight race in the first round of the French presidential election. (Patrick Kovarik/Pool/Reuters)

Near the top are Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, and far-left candidate Mélenchon — both of whom are eurosceptics and pro Russia, and at least nominally, anti-establishment.

Mélenchon, a former Socialist minister, is so far left as a candidate, his critics on the right call him the French Chavez. He wants to pull France out of NATO, and to implement tax policies seemingly inspired by Robin Hood.

The focus on security that was reignited on the final day of campaigning by the Champs Elysée attack could bolster candidates like Le Pen, who have advocated tougher border controls and an amped-up fight against extremism.

But the buzzword is change. And youth are particularly drawn to the campaign's self-styled insurgents.

"There is something happening actually … not from the politicians but from the people," said Combo, a street artist whose public imagery on religious harmony swept France following the 2015 attacks.

"People want something to change, really want it. The politician who finds how to sell [change], will win."

Combo, as he likes to be known, is a street artist who has been using cartoon characters to replace campaign posters on French streets. He says people want change. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC News)

Combo's work during the campaign focused on using cartoon characters to comment on France's political drama.

So, after the Combo treatment, a poster of the Republican Party Leader François Fillon was covered with an image of Pinocchio.

Fillon, who was initially the front-runner, was accused early in the campaign of using public money to pay his wife and children for work they allegedly never did.

'Restore France to greatness'

Perhaps the most transformative change would come under a Le Pen presidency. She favours a referendum on membership in the EU and a return to the French franc. She would curb immigration and implement a Trump-inspired France-first policy that would see the country turn inward.

"Governments past have all had platforms that none of them stuck to," said Eve Froger, a 20-year-old Le Pen supporter who plans to run for the National Front in June's legislative elections.

"The only hope to be found today is in Le Pen. She will restore France to greatness."

If that sounds familiar, let there be no doubt U.S. President Donald Trump's election has had a perceptible echo in France.

But it isn't just in the parallel rise of French populists ahead of Sunday's presidential vote.

For Amelie Crucifix, Trump's victory had an immediate, life-changing impact: she decided to launch into politics.

"Why? Fear," she said during a break from handing out pamphlets at Place de Clichy in Paris.

"When we saw what [happened] with Trump, I got up and said, 'No. That's my vote. I have to do something. I've got children, and I really, really have to do something right now."

Amelie Crucifix decided to join Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche! movement after Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. She hands out pamphlets at Place de Clichy in Paris. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC News)

So she joined the centrist, independent En Marche! movement, founded just a year ago by borrowing policies from both the old left and the right.

Its leader, Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former minister, financier and member of the Paris elite, claims to speak for middle France.

"Do we try this guy Macron? … Is he for real?" said author Askolovitch.

Or, "do we try something angrily new? If not Marine Le Pen, then Mélenchon.

"These are the questions … what do we do with our anger and our tiredness?"

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.