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French poll a serious bellwether for Europe.


France voted on
Sunday in the first round of a bitterly fought presidential election
that is crucial to the future of Europe and a closely-watched test of
voters’ anger with the political establishment.

Over
50,000 police backed by elite units of the French security services
patrolled the streets less than three days after a suspected Islamist
gunman shot dead a policeman and wounded two others on the central
Champs Elysees avenue.

Voters
will decide whether to back a pro-EU centrist newcomer, a
scandal-ridden veteran conservative who wants to slash public spending, a
far-left eurosceptic admirer of Fidel Castro or to appoint France’s
first woman president who would shut borders and ditch the euro.

The
outcome will show whether the populist tide that saw Britain vote to
leave the EU and Donald Trump’s election in the United States is still
rising, or starting to ebb. A high level of indecision adds to
nervousness.

Hanan
Fanidi, a 33-year-old financial project manager, was still unsure as she
arrived at a polling station in Paris’ 18th arrondissement.

“I
don’t believe in anyone, actually. I haven’t arrived at a candidate in
particular who could advance things. I’m very, very pessimistic,” she
said.
Emmanuel Macron,
39, a centrist ex-banker who set up his party just a year ago, is the
opinion polls’ favorite to win the first round and beat far-right
National Front chief Marine Le Pen in the two-person run-off on May 7.

For them to win the top two qualifying positions on Sunday would
represent a huge change in the political landscape. The second round
would then feature neither of the mainstream parties that have governed
France for decades.

 But
conservative Francois Fillon is making a comeback after being plagued
for months by a fake jobs scandal, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon’s
ratings have surged in recent weeks. Any two of the four has a chance to
qualify for the run-off.

“It wouldn’t be the classic left
versus right divide but two views of the world clashing,” said Ifop
pollsters’ Jerome Fourquet. “Macron bills himself as the progressive
versus conservatives, Le Pen as the patriot versus the globalists.”

The seven other candidates, including the ruling Socialist party’s Benoit Hamon lag behind in opinion polls.
By
noon (6.00 a.m. ET), turnout amid sunshine and clear skies across much
of France was 28.54 percent, according to official figures – around the
same as in the 2012 first round, in which almost 80 percent eventually
took part.

Some polls had
been predicting a much lower turnout, closer to the 70 percent that
took the then National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen into the second
round in 2002. Pollsters are unclear about what a low or high turnout
could mean in 2017.

President
Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy have failed
through both of the past two five-year presidencies to tackle the high
unemployment and sluggish growth.

That
issue, and the general trustworthiness of politicians, stands out,
polls say, even though security has re-entered the debate since
Thursday’s killing of a policeman.

Some
argue the incident increases Le Pen’s chances; but previous militant
attacks, such as the November 2015 killing of 130 people in Paris ahead
of regional polls, have not appeared to have any impact on votes.

Earlier
on Sunday a polling station in Besancon, eastern France was evacuated
after a stolen vehicle was abandoned with the engine running while
voting took place.

“CHEERING MADLY”?

The possibility of a Le Pen-Melenchon run-off is not the most likely scenario but is one which alarms bankers and investors.

 While Macron wants to further beef up the euro zone, Le Pen has told
supporters “the EU will die”. She wants to return to the Franc,
re-denominate the country’s debt stock, tax imports and reject
international treaties.

Melenchon also wants to radically overhaul the European Union and hold a referendum on whether to leave the bloc.

 Le
Pen or Melenchon would struggle, in parliamentary elections in June, to
win a majority to carry out such radical moves, but their growing
popularity also worries France’s EU partners.
 “It
is no secret that we will not be cheering madly should Sunday’s result
produce a second round between Le Pen and Melenchon,” German Finance
Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said.
If either Macron or Fillon were victorious, each would face challenges.

For
Macron, a big question would be whether he could win a majority in
parliament in June. Fillon, though likely to struggle less to get a
majority, would likely be dogged by an embezzlement scandal, in which he
denies wrongdoing.

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