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French Voters Struggle To Decide In Unusual Presidential Election

Mar 13, 2017
Originally published on March 22, 2017 9:46 am
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In France, the presidential race is turning out to be a free for all. Support for mainstream parties is collapsing. Extremist and inexperienced candidates have taken the lead. And as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has discovered, it's left many French voters confused and concerned.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Longpont-sur-Orge - population 7,000 - is about an hour's drive south of the capital. In medieval days, the town was a stop along the pilgrimage route to Compostela, Spain. Its 10th-century basilica still dominates the town square.

(Speaking French).

PHILIPPE HAMON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Merci.

Mayor Philippe Hamon, who represents a small, center-right party, says the town is largely composed of moderate working professionals. They initially lined up behind the mainstream conservative candidate Francois Fillon, but he says allegations Fillon used taxpayer money to create a fake job for his wife have not gone down well, and that could change things.

HAMON: (Through interpreter) I'm getting echoes to that a large proportion of voters - maybe 50 percent - could be tempted to vote for Le Pen, which is a worrying sign.

BEARDSLEY: The anti-immigration far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is currently leading the polls. The candidate polls say is currently best placed to beat her in the second round runoff is 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, a former economy minister and political newcomer who's running as an independent.

The mayor takes me into the basilica to see the impressive collection of saints' relics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: Michel Poillot has been the organist in Longpont for 45 years. He says he can't decide if he will stick with Fillon, who was the front-runner before the scandal.

MICHEL POILLOT: (Through interpreter) Sometimes we wonder about the role of the French media in this job scandal, but we can't exactly verify the facts. It's all very complicated.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: It's lunchtime, and Longpont's main restaurant is packed with young professionals and retirees. Despite what the mayor says, it's difficult to find a Le Pen here. Thirty-two-year-old engineer Jean Seguin works at the nearby Caterpillar plant.

JEAN SEGUIN: (Through interpreter) I'm voting for Macron because I think he incarnates renewal. We need change. We've got to break with these same people who run for president every five years.

BEARDSLEY: Retired florists Patrick and Monique Letter say this election is not about voting for someone but rather about voting against Le Pen.

PATRICK LETTER: (Speaking French).

MONIQUE LETTER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "She's our Donald Trump, and we have to pick the candidate who has the best chance of beating her," they say. They believe Macron is the man to do it despite his lack of experience. The Letters say France is a wonderful place to live, and the EU is one of the best things to happen to the country. And they say Le Pen would destroy that.

Erwan Humbert climbs down from his tractor. The scent of fresh earth fills the air. This former engineer now makes his living growing organic vegetables.

ERWAN HUMBERT: I think lots of people are so confused that they don't want to vote. I meet many people that don't want to hear about politics, and they think all those people are playing with their money.

BEARDSLEY: Humbert says he will cast his ballot, but he still doesn't know for whom. Less than six weeks before the first round of voting, this presidential election is still up in the air. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Longpont-sur-Orge, France.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN SCOFIELD SONG, "CAMELUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.