French Voters Still Undecided For Sunday's Presidential Election

Apr 22, 2017
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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

France faces its most important presidential race in more than five decades. The country's been battered by high unemployment, a refugee crisis and terrorist attacks, but the rest of the world is really concerned about the two front-runners who are big critics of the European Union. One of them, Marine Le Pen, wants France to leave the EU, which would probably kill it and reshape the political landscape of Europe. The stakes couldn't be higher. So why are so many voters still undecided? NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from Paris.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Not only are many voters undecided, a lot say they may not even cast a ballot tomorrow. Samy Tadjadit is playing dice at his bar in the city's Bastille neighborhood. The election is right around the corner. So I ask...

How are you going to vote on Sunday?

SAMY TADJADIT: I don't know. I'll have to think about it. You know, I'm very confused.

LANGFITT: Confused because he finds the political platforms vague. He's considering two left-wing politicians. But Tadjadit doesn't like any of the other leading candidates in a race that's too close to call.

TADJADIT: For sure not Macron because he's full of nothing. Le Pen - it is not a choice. I don't know. And Fillon - you know, you hear all the stories about Fillon.

LANGFITT: Francois Fillon is the political equivalent of a mainstream U.S. Republican, but he's mired in a corruption scandal, accused of employing his wife in a no-show government job worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Emmanuel Macron is a centrist newcomer who's never held elective office. And Marine Le Pen is a far-right anti-immigrant candidate reminiscent of Donald Trump.

And are you certain you'll vote on Sunday?

TADJADIT: I'm not sure. I'll say I'm thinking about it. I think I'm going to decide on Sunday.

LANGFITT: Decide on Sunday is something you hear a lot of in France right now. The country's at a crossroads, but most people are frustrated with the candidates and the whole political system.

CORINNE MELLUL: There's a sense of exhaustion among voters. There's a sense of fatigue, of disillusionment.

LANGFITT: Corinne Mellul teaches political science at Catholic University of Lille in northern France. She says many voters have lost faith in France's two major parties, the Republicans and the socialists. One or the other has controlled the president's office since the early 1980s but failed to fix big problems.

MELLUL: Unemployment is chronically high. It has been for decades. I think France is also going through a crisis identity still trying to tackle the problem of Muslim integration.

LANGFITT: And there's another big issue here in France that helped drive the Trump victory and Britain's vote to leave the European Union.

THOMAS GUENOLE: The key theme of the electoral debate in United States, in United Kingdom, in France is globalization.

LANGFITT: Thomas Guenole is a political scientist at Sciences Po, one of France's leading universities. He says more and more French are worried about their economic future, including blue-collar workers who've lost jobs to free trade. Sociologists sometimes call this growing class of anxious people the precariat.

GUENOLE: Precariat is the part of the population that has financial difficulties at the very beginning of the month and that doesn't know where they will be next month socially and economically.

LANGFITT: And, Guenole says, they often vote for political extremes, which helps explain France's fragmented electorate. Given the uncertainty surrounding tomorrow's vote, I asked Corinne Mellul, the other political scientist, whom she planned to support Sunday in the first round of the presidential race.

MELLUL: I've been voting for decades in French elections, and this time I'm just clueless.

LANGFITT: Why is it so hard to decide?

MELLUL: I can't find someone for whom my dislike is light enough that I would consider voting for them (laughter).

LANGFITT: So that means you can't even find a least worst candidate.

MELLUL: Exactly.

LANGFITT: Mellul says no one should be shocked by her distaste for the slate of candidates because, she says, many French voters feel exactly the same way. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.