The left is its usual fractious self, with two Trotskyists (one less than in 2007), one ecologist (also down one on 2007) and one Left Fronter standing.
François Bayrou is back again to claim the centre ground after coming third in 2007.
On the right there are President Nicolas Sarkozy battling it out with the far right’s Marine Le Pen, while two self-styled Gaullists with very different backgrounds look on.
A number of candidates failed to gather the required 500 elected officials to sign their nomination papers.
So the French have been deprived of the right to vote for:
- Catholic right-winger Christine Boutin, a former housing minister in Sarkozy’s cabinet who fell victim to a reshuffle, best known for her opposition to abortion and gay marriage;
- Right-wing ecologist Corinne Lepage, who submitted 500 signatures but had some ruled out by the Constitutional Council;
- Former defence minister Hervé Morin, a “centrist” who joined Sarkozy’s cabinet but lost his place in a reshuffle;
- Hunting, fishing and tradition candidate, Frédéric Nihous, no friend to the Greens;
- Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, best known abroad for his speech at the UN opposing the Iraq war, best known in France for his visceral hatred of Sarkozy.
The two-round voting system allows a greater diversity of views to be heard during the campaign than in the increasingly polarised US presidential race, for example. Voters can pick the candidate they would really like to win in the first round, then, if their first choice falls at that hurdle, vote against the one they really don’t want to be president in the second.
The 500-signatures rule is designed to weed out frivolous candidates, as they must win at least five per cent in the first round in order to receive state aid for their campaign expenses.
That’s the theory – the French love a good theory - and it sort of works.
But, politics being politics, there are complications.
Would-be candidates have done the rounds of independent or independent-minded mayors, appealing to them to sign their papers on the grounds that their presence in the election is indispensable to the democratic debate.
But most elected officials belong to the main political parties and toe the party line, either out of conviction or from careerist calculation.
And their parties calculate who they want to stand from self-interest rather than democratic principles.
- Will a candidate split their vote and reduce their chances of going through to the second round?
- Will a candidate split one of their rival’s votes, eliminating him or her from the face-off and passing on votes in the second round?
- Will a candidate's presence on the ballot paper panic voters into backing their candidate to keep someone else out of the running?
These are the sort of considerations that lead parties to put the word out to encourage some candidacies and discourage others.
That led the Front National’s Marine Le Pen to accuse Sarkozy’s UMP of bullying mayors into not signing her papers and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) to accuse the Socialists of trying to sabotage their candidate’s chances of standing.
Le Pen went so far as to appeal to the Constitutional Court to keep the names of signatories secret in the interests of the democratic process. Her request was turned down but, in the end, that didn’t stop her or the NPA’s Philippe Poutou making it ... to the first round, at least.
The 10 candidates who have made it through are:
- Nathalie Arthaud: Her Lutte ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle) group fielded bankworker Arlette Laguiller for a record six times winning widespread admiration for her integrity and persistence, if not for her realism. Arthaud, a teacher and local councillor, has not inherited the name recognition and is performing poorly in opinion polls. Wants redundancies to be banned, work to be shared and wages to be tied to the cost of living.
- François Bayrou: Standing for the Modem party that he set up himself, Bayrou is liberal on most social issues and a strict free-marketeer on economic ones. Although a practising Catholic, he is in favour of the right to abortion, while being more ambiguous on gay marriage. He is the only candidate to be standing for the third time. A bitter critic of Sarkozy, accusing him of abuse of power and stoking intolerance, he refused to call for a vote for Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal in the 2007 second round.
- Jacques Cheminade: It is a mystery how 71-year-old Cheminade - the oldest candidate – managed to collect the required number of signatures. Certainly not from supporters of his tiny party, Solidaire et progrès (Solidarity and Progess), which combines opposition to finance capital with conspiracy theories inspired by American ex-Trotskyist maverick Lyndon Larouche.
- Nicolas Dupont-Aignan: An MP for a constituency near Paris, Dupont-Aignan split from the UMP in 2007 to launch the struggle to “liberate France from the supervision of Brussels”. Nevertheless, he called for a vote for Sarkozy in that year’s presidential election.
- François Hollande: The Socialist candidate, in case you hadn’t noticed.
- Eva Joly: Ecologist candidate Joly is a former magistrate, famous for her pursuit of corruption in high places. A naturalised French citizen of Norwegian origin, she beat TV presenter Nicolas Hulot to become the Green candidate, winning the support of party members suspicious of Hulot’s apparent apoliticism. Her campaign has not been a great success so far, with the candidate at one point retiring from the fray because of a row with the party hierarchy over a deal with the Socialists.
- Marine Le Pen: Having inherited the family far-right business from her father, Jean-Marie, Le Pen faces her first presidential campaign test. It started well, with hopes that she would make it through to the second round, but her poll ratings have fallen to 16-18 per cent. Initially posing as the defender of the victims of globalisation and Brussels bureaucrats, she has returned to her father’s favourite themes (minus the tendency to anti-Semitism) as Sarkozy and his allies steal some of her thunder on Islam, immigration and halal meat.
- Jean-Luc Mélenchon: The rising star of the campaign, with over 10 per cent in opinion polls, the former junior minister in a Socialist government is now rallying those who find Hollande’s campaign bland and distrust his former party. But will his support hold up when left-wingers see the chance of getting rid of the hated Sarkozy and remember the 2002 election that saw the Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen facing right-wing incumbent Jacques Chirac?
- Philippe Poutou: A trade unionist in the car industry, Poutou has impeccable proletarian credentials to represent the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), the successor to France’s largest Trotskyist group, the Ligue Communiste révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist League). But he lacks the name recognition of media-friendly Olivier Besancenot, who won over our per cent in the 2002 and 2007 presidential race before bowing out ahead of this year’s poll.
- Nicolas Sarkozy: He’s the president at the moment, you know.