With many French willing to vote for anyone but Le Pen, whoever finishes second in round one will be favored to win round two, when only two candidates are on the ballot. The main contenders for that spot are Fillon, a Republican, and independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, who was Hollande’s finance minister but left government last year to form his own party, En Marche! (“On the Move!”), and launch a presidential bid.
Fillon’s November primary victory over established candidates surprised the country, and media credited the group Sens Commun—“Common Sense”—with the victory. Sens Commun’s membership is small—9,000 in a country of 66 million—but its members are young, organized professionals active on social media. The group’s leader is Madeleine de Jessey, 27, a political activist and instructor at the Sorbonne who attended a Catholic school and formed Sens Commun in the wake of demonstrations against the 2013 law legalizing same-sex marriage in France.
The law, championed by Hollande, was a turning point for opponents like de Jessey and others in Sens Commun who realized that their political non-engagement had enabled a huge cultural and legal shift. The group now works within the Republican party to bring issues like the definition of marriage, education, and protection of the unborn and elderly into the French political debate.
Fillon’s statement about his faith initially made him appealing to many evangelicals, especially since he has made defense of the family an issue in his campaign. While he said he would not attempt repealing the same-sex marriage law, he wants to rewrite the section on gay adoption to protect a child’s ties with biological parents. That’s fine with de Jessey, who says the country is not culturally ready for a repeal, and Fillon’s positions are steps in the right direction from a viable candidate. Fillon also favors restricting in vitro fertilization to opposite-sex couples.
However, a Fillon presidency is no longer the sure thing it once seemed. Early this year, accusations that Fillon had misused state funds surfaced, tarnishing his squeaky-clean image. Fillon’s subsequent dip in the polls created a vacuum easily filled by the charismatic Macron. Macron has tried to distance himself from his former boss, Hollande, and position himself as a centrist candidate, but critics say his platform lacks substance and is a continuation of Hollande’s lackluster policies. Campaigning as the candidate of innovation, Macron invited American climate change researchers worried about Trump funding cuts to “make France their home.” Later he repeated the invitation in an English recording that seemed more a demonstration to the French of his progressivism than an actual message to the United States.
While Macron has passed Fillon to the No. 2 spot in the polls, investigators are now looking into purported finance ministry favoritism under Macron’s tenure. Meanwhile, judges have also summoned Le Pen concerning allegations of misusing EU funds.