France Votes for a New President

France

Paris – Amidst tight security measures, French electors will be back to ballot boxes today in the second and decisive round of presidential elections, which will determine the president for the next five years.

Emmanuel Macron – highly possible to win – would be the youngest president since the foundation of the French republic 170 years ago.

Until Friday, the elections’ result was almost predictable after a survey showed that Macron not only did advance Marine Le Pen but has also achieved additional progress after the intense televised debate between the two rivals on Wednesday.

The accusations that went viral claiming that Macron is practicing taxes evasion and has secret banking accounts offshore quickly disappeared after his firm denial and the absence of any evidence.

However, the great surprise came three hours before the “electoral silence” that bans candidates, their supporters and media means from publishing or announcing any news that might influence the 47 million electors – Chan4 published an enormous amount of pictures, contracts and emails of officials from Macron electoral campaign and were promoted as Macron Leaks.

“We knew that this kind of risk would be present during the presidential campaign, because it has happened elsewhere. Nothing will be left without a response,” French President Francois Hollande said.

The political party of Macron En Marche! (On the Move), said that some of the documents are valid and were obtained several weeks ago after both personal and professional mailboxes of party leaders were hacked. Other documents in circulation are bogus, the party added.

The election commission, which supervises the electoral process, warned social and traditional media not to publish the hacked emails. “The commission stresses that publication or republication of these data…could be a criminal offense,” it said.

Emmanuel Macron: France’s Super Star

Macron

Paris – At 8:00 pm on Sunday night, French television channels will display the image of the new president of the country who will succeed Francois Hollande and lead the country for the next five years.

Up until this moment and if opinion polls are to be trusted, all indications point to centrist Emmanuel Macron achieving his dream of becoming the eighth president of the Fifth Republic in France. The polls show Macron winning 60 percent of Sunday’s runoff presidential vote, while his rival, the far-right’s Marine Le Pen obtaining 40 percent.

Macron’s supporters are sure of his victory in wake of Wednesday’s televised debate against Le Pen in which he emerged as the more confident candidate. The former minister of economy managed to maintain his cool when faced with the violent attack of his rival, who from the beginning of the debate did not spare him any accusations.

The young candidate always appeared keen on explaining his electoral platform and the measures he plans on adopting to help France out of its crisis. Le Pen on the other hand simply repeated general stances and headlines that Macron sought to pull apart. Even worse for the National Front leader, she seemed unconfident on her stances on Europe and the unified currency, terrorism, security, immigration and Islam. She was hoping to bridge the gap between her and Macron, but he was able to resist her assault, pushing her to make one final accusation that he has secret offshore accounts in the Bahamas.

Moscow’s Touches

Macron categorically denied Le Pen’s claims and he filed a complaint before the French judiciary, which immediately launched an investigation in the matter. The offshore claims first appeared on American websites, specifically from those that backed US President Donald Trump during his electoral campaign. In France, the claims were circulated on websites that are close to Russia.

It is clear that Le Pen’s electoral team resorted to this tactic to halt Macron’s march towards the Elysee Palace. His success, should it happen, will be taught at political science academies as the developments of the electoral campaign were similar to a play with several plot twists. The repercussions of his election will reshape France’s political landscape and its first indications will appear on Sunday night. They will be followed by parliamentary elections in June and their results will have a massive effect on the new president’s term. Macron will need a parliamentary majority to govern and questions have been raised about who this majority will be formed of, especially since several of those voting for him on Sunday are really doing so to prevent Le Pen from coming to power.

Success Story

In April 2016, then Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron kicked off a new French political movement, “En Marche!” (Forward!), which prompted political commentators to start talking about the ambitions of the then 38-year-old.

Gradually, debate that the minister “will not dare” run for presidency against his Hollande, “who made him,” began to grow. The Socialist president was the one to bring Macron “out of the unknown” when he appointed him as an economic advisor at the recommendation of Jacque Attali, the special advisor of former Socialist President Francois Mitterand. After Hollande’s election as president, Macron, the graduate of France’s École nationale d’administration, moved with him to the Elysee Palace to serve as deputy director of the presidency, while continuing to act as economic advisor. The next step in his rise on the political scene saw him appointed minister of economy in the government of then Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

It then came as a surprise that Macron decided to run for presidency, notably also because French presidents, whether from the left or right, usually run for a second term in office and Hollande was likely going to do so.

Macron: the Phenomenon

Political analysts agree that Hollande was indeed planning to run for reelection, but his recent poor political performance, due to his failure to make true on his economic and social pledges, diminished his chances of running and actually winning. The final blow came when Macron announced his candidacy in August without taking into account Hollande’s decision. He justified his move by noting Hollande’s political weakness, which came in evidence when he lost the primary of the Socialist Party to Benoit Hamon.

Macron sought to overcome the traditional divisions of right and left of French politics, while many did not take him seriously as a candidate, saying that he will not be able to prove himself against parties that have deep roots in French society. His rise is a real political phenomenon in France where he reflects a need for rejuvenation and openness, despite rivals labeling him the candidate of financial oligarchy. Le Pen went so far as to call him the candidate of “Islamic groups” and the immigrants. She also accused him of abandoning the French identity and of other claims that are aimed at discrediting him.

This is Politics

Macron, who is likely to become France’s next president, has in fact succeeded in marketing the European liberal economic policy without abandoning the fundamentals of protecting the citizens and preserving the central social guarantees of French society. The main challenge he will face if he becomes the eight president of the republic is reaping a parliamentary majority that will back him and provide the necessary political stability that will help him achieve the reforms he pledged to the people.

Votes for Macron however are not necessarily for him, but rather votes against Le Pen and fears that France will become the first major western country ruled by the far-right.

Ungrateful Heiress

From the beginning her presidential campaign, Le Pen sought to distinguish herself from other candidates. She presented herself as being “against the current system” and that she is the “candidate of the people.” The truth is that she is the only “political heiress” out of eleven candidates who ran in the first round of the presidential elections. Le Pen inherited the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie, who fought with his fellow colleagues in order to appoint her head of his party.

Furthermore, her claim that she is the “daughter of the people” is not true, because she has, since the day she was born, been living in a villa that was mysteriously inherited by her father by an old rich member of the National Front. He also inherited his money and became wealthy himself.

Political disputes on how to lead the party soon ensued between father and daughter and the case was taken to court, where Marine succeeded in stripping him of his honorary presidency. She later sought to remove him from the party altogether after she started to see him as an obstacle in her path to power.

Perhaps Le Pen and Macron are similar in that they both committed symbolic “patricide” whereby the latter removed his spiritual father Hollande from his path, while the former “neutralized” her father.

Le Pen succeeded in the seven years that she has been leading the National Front in transforming it into a party like any other in France when in the past it used to be shunned. She took advantage of the mistakes of the traditional parties and expanded her electoral base, which was evident in local and regional elections. The parliament remains a major obstacle seeing as the party only has two lawmakers representing it.

If Le Pen does not make it to the Elysee Palace, she has at least made it half the way. Furthermore, it will no longer be a hard ask for the National Front to win seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. It may even gain enough seats to form an independent bloc that will guarantee her a political and parliamentary presence and enable her to further seep into the veins of the French state.

Times Have Changed

There was a time in the past when the members of the National Front used to hide their affiliation to the extremist party’s ideology and politics, but today, they are proud of belonging to it. This means that the psychological barrier that prevented the advance of the far-right has been broken. The terrorist attacks that have struck France in the past two years have only helped take it steps closer to power.

At the moment, it appears that France will not hand over the keys to power to the leader of the far-right, but the National Front has become a main player in the country. The parliamentary elections will test this observation and the France that used to be ruled by the traditional right and moderate left is no more. The political scene has been fragmented and is being rebuilt with the emergence of the polar opposites of Le Pen and Macron. It has been an arduous birth, not just for the leaders of the far-right, but to especially those who are absent in the final round of the presidential elections. These absentees, the republican party and socialists, are now dreaming that the parliamentary elections will pave the way for them to return to their familiar positions.

Le Pen Adopts Russia’s Strategy on Syria, Sees No Alternative to Assad

Pen

Paris – Rapprochement with Russia is one of the most important aspects of far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s foreign strategy.

Even though she was not the only candidate to follow this approach, she is the most committed to it and she had paid a visit to Moscow at the end of March, holding an hour-and-a-half long meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Le Pen is seeking “strategic rapprochement” with Moscow and she believes that it is “more than necessary” in the fight against ISIS and terrorism. To that end, she is willing to pay the price of expressing views that support the Russian policy.

She supports the Kremlin’s stance on Ukraine and even considers that the “annexation of Crimea was not an illegal move, but a product of a popular referendum.” She also heavily criticized the US and European sanctions against Moscow that were imposed in wake of the annexation in 2014, saying that they were “unjustified.”

The far-right candidate, who has advanced to the final round of the presidential elections, has declared that she is striving for France to regain its sovereignty and freedom. She is therefore seeking a foreign policy that “takes inspiration from the strategies that General Charles De Gaulle defended.”

Based on this, one can understand Le Pen’s stance on Syria and terrorism and her severe criticism of the French strategy that has “committed error after error.” She has instead backed the Russia on these two files.

Observers have said that her victory in the elections, whose runoff vote will take place on May 7, will be a victory for the Kremlin as well due to her stances and France’s influence on the European Union.

Le Pen has always sought to improve her image and demonstrate her openness to the world. Prior to her visit to Moscow, she visited New York in mid-January, but she was unable to meet with US President Donald Trump. She also paid a visit to Beirut on February 20 where she met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri with talks focusing on security, immigration and Syria.

She declared after meeting Hariri that “options in Syria are limited to (regime leader) Bashar Assad and ISIS,” adding that she would choose the former because he is the lesser of two evils.

She justified her stance by saying that she has never met Assad, asking: “Is there a sustainable and credible solution in Syria that can replace Assad and avoid the collapse of the Syrian state?”

Her position does not differ than Moscow’s that has long said that it “is not bound to Assad, but there is no alternative to him.”

Le Pen also advocated the Russian stance on Washington’s recent strike against Syria’s Shayrat air base in wake of the chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. She had demanded that an independent investigation be carried out in the attack before resorting to military action.

She went so far as to deem the US strike as “a blatant attack and meddling in the affairs of another country.” At the same time, she noted that a chemical attack is “scary” and the perpetrators should be found.”

Furthermore, she had voiced her support for Russia’s veto of the draft resolution that was presented by France, Britain and the US that condemned the strike, “because its laid blame on Assad before an investigation was done.”

In addition, she noted that France’s errors in Syria were among the reasons that led to terror attacks in her country in the past two and a half years.

Macron Policy in Middle East

France

Paris – The world watched anxiously the results of the first round of French presidential elections given their consequences on the future of the European Union (EU) and France foreign policy in the Middle East.

French electors have chosen the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, yet Macron is more likely to reach the presidency.

While candidates focused in their electoral campaigns on topics related to economy, immigration and membership of the EU, Macron statements gave a hint on the policy he might adopt towards Syria, Palestinian-Israeli conflict and fighting terrorism. His policy seemed similar to previous policies but with some amendments.

The French president occupies a central position in drawing the defensive and foreign policy not to say that he is also the head of the French armed forces and the key holder of the nuclear weapon. That’s why the identity of the eighth president will have a decisive effect on Paris political and diplomatic choices as well as military ones during the five coming years.

The first remark on Macron, 39, is that he lacks experience in the international relations field except for his experience as a minister of economy for two years after being the economic consultant of former French President Francois Hollande – since he knows his weak point, he surrounded himself with diplomats to benefit from them.

In the Syrian file, Macron wants to “arrange the priorities” and the first one of them is fighting “ISIS” and getting rid of this terrorist group. He seems to prefer that Assad leaves in a political transitional process.

Regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Macron stance differs from that of the current government since he considers that a prompt acknowledgement of Palestinian as a state is unbeneficial.

On Turkey, he commented: “I regret very deeply the route Turkey is taking, and I disapprove of it.” Macron affirmed that he will protect democrats everywhere once he enters Élysée Palace.

French Presidential Elections: Hitting Below the Belt

Pen

Paris – Electoral campaigns for the second round of presidential elections, which will take place on May 7, kicked off Monday, witnessing an exchange of “strikes below the belt” between parties supporting centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron on one side and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on the other.

Amid signs of wide backing of the “Republican Front” in support of Macron, politicians from both right and left have voiced their rejection to the arrival of the National Front leader to the Elysée.

On Monday, President Francois Hollande urged the French nation to support Macron and reject Le Pen.

“What is at stake is France’s make-up, its unity, its membership of Europe and its place in the world,” he stated in a televised address.

He noted that the far-right would threaten the rupture of Europe, “profoundly divide France”.

“Faced with such a risk, I will vote for Emmanuel Macron”, Hollande added.

Sources in the Elysée Palace said that Hollande might refuse to meet with Le Pen for the handover ceremony, should the latter win the elections.

Politicians from different groups and affiliations have united behind the “Republican Front” to prevent the arrival of the far-right to power and stop Le Pen from achieving a historic victory that could have severe consequences on France and the European Union.

Le Pen, for her part, condemned the parties’ call to unite against her, denouncing what she described as “the old and completely rotten Republican Front”.

She announced on Twitter on Monday that she was temporarily stepping down as the National Front leader so she could run as a candidate for “all the French.”

Only one major candidate has resisted calls to unite against Le Pen.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the hard-left candidate who came in fourth, said that he would seek the opinion of his supporters through his website.

The French Interior Ministry released the final elections results of the first round on Monday. Macron took first place with 24.01 percent of the vote, while Le Pen came second on 21.30 percent.

Macron, Le Pen to Compete for French Presidency

Paris – French Centrist Emmanuel Macron took a big step towards the Elysée on Sunday by winning the first round of voting along with far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

“I want to be the president of patriots against the threat of nationalists,” Macron told his supporters as the first election results were announced.

“The French have expressed their desire for change,” he told AFP in a statement, adding: “We’re clearly turning a page in French political history.”

Macron said he wanted to gather “the largest possible” support before the May 7 runoff.

He called for hope in Europe instead of fear, a reference to Le Pen’s anti-European Union campaign.

Le Pen, for her part, described the election results as “historic.” She also promised to “free the French people from arrogant elites.”

Calling herself the candidate for the people, the far-right presidential contender said: “The main thing at stake in this election is the rampant globalization that is endangering our civilization.”

Conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister, finished third with 19.91 percent, while Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far left was fourth 19.64 percent.

In a speech following the announcement of his defeat, Fillon urged voters to support Macron, warning that Le Pen would bankrupt France if elected.

“There is no other choice but to vote against the far right, I will vote for Emmanuel Macron,” Fillon told his supporters.

The Interior Ministry announced that turnout had reached 69.4 percent three hours before the polls closed, compared with 70.6 percent in the first round of presidential voting in 2012.

A total of 50,000 policemen and gendarmes have been mobilized for the two rounds of presidential elections, French Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said, amid increased security concerns.

Ballot Boxes Open in French Presidential Elections

France

Paris – The French presidential elections got underway on Sunday with voters heading to 67,000 ballot boxes distributed throughout the country in wake of the dark shadow of the terrorist attack that hit Paris on Thursday night.

Given the serious threats, the French president and prime minister were keen to assure the 47 million voters of the safety of the electoral process with the Ministry of Interior mobilizing no less than 50,000 personnel and Ministry of Defense providing 7,000 to maintain security.

A few hours after the tragedy that struck Paris, President Francois Hollande appeared on television to ensure the state’s “absolute keenness” to provide security and safety during the elections.

For his part, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve stated that nothing should prevent holding the democratic process, affirming that it is up to the French people not to get carried away with fear and intimidation because this ensures the victory of the “enemies of the republic”.

Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon stressed that it would be “a huge mistake if French people succumbed to fear”, adding that they should not present a “gift” to the terrorists by abandoning their right to participate in the democratic practice.

However this stance – similar to that of centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron – was not endorsed by the other two candidates: National Front candidate Marine Le Pen and the republican Francois Fillon.

Le Pen directed the harshest criticism to the right-wing and left-wing governments of the past ten years, saying they have failed in protecting the French people. She portrayed herself as the “sole guarantor” of security in the face of terrorism.

Which two candidates will emerge victorious in the first round of the elections? It is hard to guess.

The two winning candidates in Sunday’s elections will head to a runoff vote scheduled for May 7.

Palestinian FM: Abbas Visit to Washington is an Opportunity to Influence the New Administration

Palestinian

Paris – Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riad al-Maliki said that the upcoming visit of President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington next month was an “opportunity” to influence the new US Administration.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on the sidelines of his visit to Paris, Maliki said that the Palestinian Authority was betting on the distinctiveness of President Donald Trump’s personality, “which could push him to go against the opinion of his personal advisors.”

“We don’t have the illusion that we can overturn the current orientation, but this visit would change Trump’s established ideas,” the Palestinian foreign minister said.

“We believe that this visit will provide an opportunity for President Abbas to present the truths as they are to the US president,” he added.

Maliki explained that Trump was “different from his predecessors, in terms of thinking and vision, and can make a decision regarding an issue, regardless of the opinion of his advisors.”

He noted that a Palestinian delegation that includes Senior Negotiator Saeb Erekat, the head of Intelligence Majed Faraj, and the head of the Investment Fund Mohammed Mustafa, would arrive to Washington on Sunday to prepare the political, security and economic issues, which would be discussed during the summit between Trump and Abbas.

The Palestinian minister met with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault in Paris last week.

He noted that Ayrault reaffirmed France’s adherence to the two-state solution and commitment to promoting peace, and to the implementation of UNSCR 2234.

Maliki said that the current French leadership believed that recognizing the Palestinian State was very difficult at the present moment, despite the Palestinian Authority’s insistence on the matter.

He said that France expressed concern at the uninterrupted continuation of Israeli settlement activity and reaffirmed the importance of combating all forms of violence.

On the expected meeting between Trump and Abbas, Maliki said the summit is scheduled for May 3rd.

He added that the Palestinian Authority was looking forward to receiving Trump’s promise of his commitment to the two-state solution, the elimination of the plan to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and a clear stance against illegal settlements.

He also said that Abbas hoped that the US president would support Palestinians’ right to benefit from all available resources to boost their economy and growth.

“We must deploy all efforts because we believe that we have an opportunity – we should grab the opportunity of the two presidents’ meeting; this is very important to us,” the foreign minister stated.

Asked about the outcome of visits conducted by US officials to Palestine since the arrival of the new US Administration, Maliki said: “They came to listen to us and we believe that they were only go-and-see visits.”

He added that while there has been some improvement in the way the US is dealing with the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian officials were waiting for concrete results following Abbas’ visit to Washington.

Jean-Luc Melenchon: ‘Rebel Leftist’ Seeking French Presidency

Melenchon

Paris – If there is a need to demonstrate that Jean-Luc Melenchon, the French presidential candidate who has been described as the “rebellious France”, has started to affect his three rival candidates, one need only observe how all three of them have simultaneously launched an attack against him in wake of his rise in opinion polls.

Melenchon is running in the elections against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, centrist Emmanuel Macron and the traditional right’s Francois Fillon.

Most French recall that Melenchon emerged from the French Communist Party before abandoning it for the far-left. He has a clear presidential program and is an eloquent orator and therefore his rivals believe that the momentum that he has needs to be stopped. His rise has seen him reach third place in opinion polls, just after Le Pen and Macron and above Fillon.

His rivals believe that his program should be marginalized and voter should be persuaded that his election will mean the return of communism and Soviet tanks to Paris, the restructuring of companies and a flood of immigrants and refugees into France. These are a few of other “surreal excuses” that serve one goal: intimidating the people and forcing them to disregard this unconventional candidate.

Obscure Candidate

Less than a month ago, none of the three presidential hopefuls had regarded Melenchon as a contender. In fact, French Communist Party candidate Benoit Hamon had at one point gone so far as to call on Melenchon to withdraw from the race and support him instead in order to unite the leftist ranks. At the time, opinion polls indicated that Melenchon enjoyed 10 to 12 percent backing, while Hamon edged him out by a small margin.

Today however the situation has radically changed as Melenchon’s popularity now exceeds 20 percent as opposed to Hamon’s single digits. It is clear that the former has garnered the favor of the divided French Communist Party. The party’s liberal wing, which includes Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, has gone on to back Macron, while the leftist wing has backed Melenchon because he has better chances of reaching the second round of the presidential elections. The first round is scheduled for April 23, while the final round, in which the top two candidates compete, is set for May 7.

The truth of the matter is that Melenchon is edging closer to the top two candidates, Le Pen and Macron, who are losing ground in opinion polls. They are both hovering at around 22 to 23 percent, while Melenchon is going from strength to strength. The second round of the elections could see him running against Le Pen.

Nightmare Scenario

This is a nightmare scenario for several of the French as no one had seen Melenchon coming. His image has improved and he is seen as the candidate who is closest to the people and one with the cleanest record. Everyone agrees on his public speaking skills, but he has now become a threat to the right, left and center alike. If Macron’s numbers in opinion polls continue to decrease and Fillon remains mired in his family scandals, then the road will be clear for Melenchon. He will lead France towards the unknown, along with the country’s fate in the European Union.

The alarm bells have started to ring in France and outgoing President Francois Hollande, who has led the Socialist Party to its breaking point, told Le Monde newspaper in an indirect reference to Melenchon earlier this week that “we are seeing the orator, but forgetting the content and the program.” Hollande announced that the politics in France needs “renewal”, which can be seen as a reference to Macron, who is only 39 years old. The centrist candidate had served as assistant to the Elysee Palace general secretary before being appointed economy minister by Hollande.

Meanwhile, the pro-Fillon Le Figaro newspaper dedicated on Wednesday four pages to attack Melenchon, while its greatest fear is that the leftist pass him in opinion polls and make it to the second round of the elections. It said: “The problem lies in that he has prepared an electoral program that is inspired from South American revolutionists, specifically late Venezuelan ‘comrade’ Hugo Chavez. It is no secret that the ‘rebellious France’ candidate holds an unabashed admiration for him.”

It went on to note that Melenchon’s electoral program calls for increasing public spending to 270 billion euros, imposing a 100 percent income tax on all whose salaries exceed 400,000 euros annually, increasing paid work leave to six weeks and lowering the number of working hours per week. This will all harm the national economy and the financial markets have started to voice their concerns over the program, said Le Figaro.

Radical Economic Program

The right has said that Melenchon’s economic-social program is impossible to implement, while Fillon has descried it as a program for communist rule, which will sink the French economy like the Titanic. This is a fear that has been shared by business owners, who also warned of the consequent rise in unemployment and of France’s exit from the EU and abandonment of the euro.

An ardent defender of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies, including his stance on Syria, Melenchon has been touting himself as the “candidate of peace,” to which Macron responded that he rejects “Putin’s peace.” Melenchon was quick to respond to his critics, saying during an electoral rally on Wednesday: “If you elect any one of those three (Le Pen, Macron and Fillon), then you will bleed.” Furthermore, he indicated that during Fillon’s tenure as prime minister from 2007 to 2012, unemployment rose to exceed one million and public debt reached 600 billion euros. As for Macron, Melenchon indicated that during his time as economy minister, unemployment reached record numbers. He also berated him for “betraying” Hollande, who “made him,” saying that he abandoned the socialists to head to the Rothschild Bank.

First Round

In a few days, 47 million French voters will head to the first round of the presidential elections. Analysts agree that these elections will differ from all other previous ones since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. On the one hand, it is clear that the two main political parties that have taken turns in ruling the country over the past 60 years will likely not make it to the second round. On the other hand, this is the first time that the far-right, through Le Pen, has gotten this close to the Elysee Palace. The French are also dealing with the Macron phenomenon, who emerged as an independent candidate and who does not have a political party platform to fall back on. He established the “En Marche!” (“Forward!”) political movement last summer and is seeking to defeat the left and right. The problem should he be elected president lies in that he does not enjoy a parliamentary majority that will back his legislative efforts and ensure political stability. Le Pen and Melenchon face the same problem, which is why Fillon is trying to market himself as the only candidate who can guarantee such stability and lead the country.

Macron, Le Pen Still Leading Polls after ‘Historic’ Presidential Debate

Macron

Paris – All 11 candidates for the French presidency held a debate on Tuesday night, the first of its kind in the European country.

The four hours of debate, which drew in six million viewers, saw candidates clash over economy and redefining France’s place in Europe. While frontrunners 39-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macrona and 48-year-old far-right leader Marine Le Pen continued to lead the polls, the television debate helped shed light on the six lesser-known candidates.

“I want to recover the optimism of the French,” said Macron, currently tipped to win in May, asserting that entrepreneurs and businesses are job creators. “We must invest to get the machine going again.”

But Le Pen said the answer lies in “economic patriotism”, vowing to fight “out-of-control globalization” with her anti-EU agenda.

Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, under pressure after being charged with misuse of public funds, said France’s grinding 10 percent unemployment and massive debt combined to create an “explosive situation”.

The 63-year-old conservative said Europe was “veering off course” and that France needs to get it back on track.

Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, 65, who has been rising in the polls, came out slugging against big business, saying it should “pay back” its riches. For his part Benoit Hamon, who is carrying the Socialist banner as Francois Hollande nears the end of a deeply unpopular presidency, vowed to “demolish” new labor laws seen as too pro-business, and create one million jobs in the next five years.

He took a swipe at Fillon, who has vowed to cut half a million jobs from the country’s bloated civil service.

The presence of the six minor candidates — all polling well under five percent — added a strong anti-capitalist element to the debate, as well as vivid anti-EU sentiment.

“The French understand that the stakes in this election are to reorient Europe” in view of globalization and Britain’s decision to quit the EU, said Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, head of Debout la France (Rise Up France).

Jacques Cheminade, head of the LaRouche movement, railed against what he called the “financial dictatorship” and Philippe Poutou of the New Anti-Capitalist Party slammed “those who stuff themselves”.

Jean Lassalle, speaking in the thick accent of the southwest, said he proposed a “future based on hope” in contrast to high suicide rates in the suburbs of main cities, as well as in rural communities — “that’s the reality”.

Security issues prompted a vigorous discussion as the country is still under state of emergency following deadly attacks in Paris in 2015.

Le Pen wants to reinstate France’s national borders to prevent potential attackers from entering the country.

She pledged to boost the military budget and suggested closing a hundred mosques in the country she describes as preaching a “radical” Islam.

Macron vowed to pursue France’s military operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa’s Sahel region and promised to hire 10,000 police forces to help ensuring security on the country’s territory.

In the crowded debate, each candidate was allowed to speak for around 15 minutes and the questions were restricted to just three themes — how to create jobs, how to protect France, and the thorny issue of how each candidate would implement their vision of France’s social model.

The final result of an election that is being watched closely around the world is still seen as highly unpredictable.

Dissatisfaction and outright hostility towards mainstream politics is high in France and surveys show around a third of voters plan to abstain, while around a third of likely voters say they have still not made up their minds.

Macron, whom the daily Le Parisien on Tuesday dubbed “the man to beat”, has warned that commentators are still underestimating Le Pen.

Those who say she stood no chance in May’s deciding round — between the top two places in the first round on April 23 — are “the same people who said (Donald) Trump couldn’t win”, Macron said.

He is facing the most scrutiny, as he is tipped to clinch final victory in a May 7 run-off against Le Pen.