Six questions about the French elections

Popular candidates for the 2017 presidential election (from left): Fillon, Macron, Melenchon, Le Pen and Hamon get ready to debate on March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick Kovarik

As France goes to the polls to elect a new president, observers are wondering if the vote will follow a populist trend that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

Here are a few important things to know about the upcoming vote, as explained by Joshua Cole, an American scholar of European history.

1. How does the French presidential electoral process work? Prospective candidates must gather 500 signatures of support from French elected officials and have their candidacy approved by the Constitutional Court. A presidential term is five years, and all citizens 18 years and older can vote. This year the first round of voting is on April 23. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there will be a second-round runoff between the top two candidates on May 7.

2. Is president an important job in France? The prime minister is the head of the French government, but the president outranks the prime minister and has important powers in national defense and foreign relations.

The president also chooses the prime minister from the majority party in parliament. Occasionally, the president is forced to choose a prime minister from a different party than his or her own. This is called “cohabitation.” This year, the legislative elections will be in two rounds on June 11 and 18.

3. Who are the most popular candidates for president? Eleven candidates are running, with five seen as the main contenders. Two candidates are leading the polls: Marine Le Pen of the extreme right-wing National Front and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist and former economics minister, who is not associated with a traditional party.

Surprisingly, the candidates from the parties who have dominated presidential politics for almost 40 years – the Republicans and the Socialists – are seen as unlikely to make the second round. Republican François Fillon has been hobbled by scandal. Socialist Bénoit Hamon has found little traction among voters tired of the current socialist president, François Hollande.

A candidate from the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has seen his chances of making the second round improve in recent days.

4. France has been under a nationwide state of emergency since November of 2015. Is security a big issue? Multiple terrorist attacks in 2015-2016 have made security more important than ever. Article 16 of the French Constitution gives the president the power to declare a state of emergency and then exercise executive and legislative powers simultaneously, ruling directly by decree. Given the likelihood of more terrorist attacks, this possibility has received a great deal of attention of late. A group of lawyers and jurists recently published a letter arguing that the Constitution gives too much power to the presidency and that electing Le Pen was a danger to French democracy.

A national employment agency in the suburbs of Paris. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

5. During the 2012 election, some said then-President Nicolas Sarkozy was afraid to visit immigrant neighborhoods. How are these so-called “banlieues” playing into the election this time?

The banlieues are zones of economic and cultural exclusion, where problems of chronic unemployment are concentrated. Not all French Muslims (about 8 percent of the population) live in the banlieues, but some banlieues have large Muslim populations. Le Pen’s campaign painted the banlieues as zones of failed assimilation and a danger to France, blaming the residents for their own isolation.

6. What are the chances Le Pen will win? Le Pen is popular among many young people, who seem not to be bothered by the National Front’s long association with racism and anti-Semitism. She is also supported by those who are opposed to European integration. Most polls say a second-round runoff between Le Pen and Macron is likely, and that Macron will win this match-up. With more than a third of the electorate saying they’re undecided on whom to vote for in the second round, the result may end up being much closer than predicted.