France’s presidential election campaign has been overshadowed by allegations of corruption and bouts of political infighting. But behind the sound and fury, there are big policy differences between the main contestants who are offering radically different visions for their country.
The “traditional” party candidates on the centre-right and centre-left are quite hardline by recent standards. François Fillon, for the Republicans, portrays himself as a French Thatcherite with conservative Catholic values. Benoît Hamon, for the socialists, has ideas for addressing the “myth of infinite economic growth”.
The two “insurgent” candidates in many ways defy left-right categorisation. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen is running on a populist, anti-immigration platform but has spurned economic liberalism in favour of the protective state. Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist, borrows from the left on issues of social protection but his pro-business platform falls well to the right of socialist orthodoxy.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left anti-austerity candidate, claims to be true to France’s revolutionary tradition.
Here is where the runners and riders stand on the main issues:
Ms Le Pen — a fierce critic of austerity — has pledged to cut taxes for households and increase welfare benefits for the working class. Those measures would be paid for, she says, by savings from reduced immigration and withdrawal from the EU. She has also said she would get France’s central bank to print more money to bring down the country’s debt.
In contrast, Mr Fillon has proposed cutting spending — €100bn in savings over five years — and slashing half a million public sector jobs. But he would also lower taxes for businesses and individuals, partly funded by an increase in VAT but also by higher borrowing temporarily.
Mr Macron advocates a Nordic-style economic model for France, mixing more moderate spending cuts of €60bn over five years with a €50bn stimulus package over the same period, lower taxes and an extension of the welfare state. He says he could still keep France’s deficit below the EU’s 3 per cent limit and would cut 50,000 state jobs.
Mr Hamon and Mr Mélenchon would both loosen the government’s purse strings considerably. Mr Hamon wants to roll out a monthly basic income of €750 a month to all citizens and bolster public services — hiring more teachers and medical staff. He would increase public spending by €71bn a year by 2022, funded by higher taxes on business and the wealthy. He has also proposed taxing robots. Mr Mélenchon would increase spending by more than €250bn a year and raise public sector wages, financed through higher taxes and taking on more debt.
Ms Le Pen’s promise to ditch the euro if she wins the election — together with her threat of a referendum on a “Frexit” from the EU if she is unable to renegotiate its rules on border-free travel and budget contributions — has already worried investors.
Mr Fillon is calling for more integration but on an intergovernmental basis, such as the creation of a eurozone government of national leaders operating outside the Brussels institutions, and the renegotiation of the Schengen agreement on borderless travel.
Greater co-operation within the EU — on fiscal, environmental and social regulation — is a central pillar of Mr Macron’s agenda. “We need to believe in Europe, love Europe, breathe Europe,” he told a recent campaign rally. Mr Hamon has urged a similar approach, even calling for a European minimum wage. But leftist Mr Mélenchon wants a complete renegotiation of European treaties. Failing that, his “plan B” would be to quit the EU altogether.
Nativism and “national preference” lie at the heart of Ms Le Pen’s campaign. Not only has she pledged to introduce a quota to cut immigration by 80 per cent to 10,000 people a year, she has also promised an extra tax on employers hiring foreigners and making it harder to acquire French citizenship. Mr Fillon, too, wants to reduce immigration “to a strict minimum” by adopting annual immigration quotas in parliament and restricting immigrants’ rights to benefits.
Mr Macron, who has praised Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy that “saved our collective dignity”, is promising to prioritise dealing with asylum requests within six months. France should welcome refugees in need of “protection”, but “other” asylum seekers should be returned to their home country immediately, he says.
Mr Hamon has called on France to accept more refugees and says asylum seekers need greater opportunities to integrate; free French lessons and the right to work after three months feature in his plan. Mr Mélenchon is less enthusiastic about immigration than his leftwing credentials would suggest, claiming the focus should be on tackling its causes rather than opening France up to refugees.
With French unemployment just under 10 per cent, the labour market has become a politically charged issue in the campaign. Strict labour laws, including the flagship 35-hour work week policy, are disliked by many employers but fiercely defended by the unions.
Ms Le Pen intends to maintain the 35-hour week and lower the retirement age but make overtime tax-free. Mr Fillon has more drastic plans to tackle labour market rigidity, with pledges to introduce a 39-hour week for public sector workers, scrap the limit altogether for the private sector, raise the retirement age and make the firing process easier.
Mr Macron has backed away from the confrontation he provoked when, as economy minister, he suggested scrapping the 35-hour rule; instead, he plans to protect it but introduce flexibility around overtime. He has vowed to leave the retirement age and pensions untouched but would give companies the freedom to negotiate specific deals on working hours and pay. Both Mr Hamon — who quit the French government in 2014 in protest against its pro-business labour reforms — and Mr Mélenchon have proposed a 32-hour work week. The latter would lower the retirement age from 62 to 60.
As president, Ms Le Pen would reject international trade agreements in favour of “intelligent protectionism” benefiting French companies. Her anti-globalisation push would include a 3 per cent tax on imports and directing public procurement towards French companies.
Mr Fillon’s pro-business stance suggests he would be broadly open to free trade, though he has not outlined any detailed positions. Mr Macron calls for deeper European co-operation and integration to create a “protective Europe”. This includes, for example, creating an EU mechanism to control foreign takeovers of important industries. He is the only candidate who openly supports trade deals such as the EU-Canada trade deal, Ceta.
Such agreements are a bête noire for the leftist candidates. Mr Hamon and Mr Mélenchon have vowed to pull France out of trade agreements such as Ceta. The latter is running on a platform of what he calls “equitable protectionism” — which includes measures to boost French farming and favour goods produced in France. Pro-Europe candidate Mr Hamon argues that, like Mr Mélenchon, he is protectionist “but from a European perspective”.
Security and defence
Many of the candidates have proposed increased spending on defence and policing as part of the fight against terror following attacks over the past two years.
Ms Le Pen wants to quit Nato, almost double the defence budget to 3 per cent of GDP from its current 1.8 per cent level, and reintroduce military service. Controversially, she supports closer relations between France and Russia, arguing that Moscow is critical to defeating Isis in the Middle East.
Mr Fillon has outlined a plan to raise spending on defence, security and justice by €12bn a year and create thousands more prison places. He has also called for a rapprochement with Russia on Syria — and, in the past, has signalled a willingness to negotiate with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Mr Macron would increase defence spending to 2 per cent, add 10,000 police officers and restore a networks of field agents to combat Islamist terror. He has said his top foreign policy goal is “to kill Isis” and called for greater co-operation with the US to do so. Like Ms Le Pen, Mr Hamon proposes a defence budget at 3 per cent of GDP and would bulk up the police force. Mr Mélenchon would pull France out of Nato and boost police numbers.