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Political Newcomer In Second Place For French Presidential Race


We're going to turn now to France, where the presidential race is heating up. It's seven weeks away from the two-round vote, which determines which candidates will go onto the final round of voting. A runoff, if you will. But the race has been upended by allegations of scandal involving the established candidate for the mainstream conservative party, and that's leaving an opening for a candidate from the far right and a young political newcomer with little track record. We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called NPR's correspondent in Paris, Eleanor Beardsley, and she's with us now. Eleanor, thanks so much for joining us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Michel, it's great to be with you.

MARTIN: It seems so dramatic. It's so much more dramatic than I think was expected in last November's election here.

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. Michel, it is almost surreal. You wake up every day and the situation has changed. So first off, as you said, we have this far-right anti-immigrant party basically in first place right now. That's unheard of. Usually the far right has about 13 percent of the vote. She has, Marine Le Pen, 27 percent. And in second place right behind her with 25 percent is Emmanuel Macron. He's come out of nowhere. He's 39 years old, a former investment banker, and he briefly served as President Francois Hollande's economy minister. He's never been elected to anything. And he's running outside the traditional two-party system. He started his own party.

And in a distant third place we have the man who two months ago everyone said, this is the next French president. You know, Francois Fillon, mainstream conservative. But now he's hemorrhaging support because of this fake job scandal involving his wife. On Friday, his campaign manager quit, and also many major people in the party are calling for him to step aside before it's too late.

MARTIN: Is there any possibility that he will step aside? What has he - what has he said about this?

BEARDSLEY: He says he is absolutely fighting to the end. He's done nothing wrong. He's innocent. He's not going to step aside. But people want the longtime mayor of Bordeaux - and he's a very well-known political figure, Alain Juppe - to replace him. Juppe lost to Fillon in the primary. But right now, Fillon says he's not going anywhere. And people either view Fillon as a brave fighter or completely delusional. And in fact, Fillon made a video yesterday and here it is.


FRANCOIS FILLON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Now, he's saying basically, they're trying to take away your vote and encroach on our democracy by sidelining me, and you must resist.

MARTIN: And he tweeted this video, as I recall. What does that...

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. Yeah.

MARTIN: What does that remind me of? Let me think. And what about Macron? What are his chances? You're saying that he's completely out of nowhere, a very, very different candidate. Tell me, what is the appeal? And what - how do you assess his chances?

BEARDSLEY: Well, his chances are very good. People are saying he could be the next president because if Marine Le Pen makes it into the second round, a lot of people will just vote for whoever's running against her. So actually, today they're saying Macron has the best chance to become the next president. Six months ago, he had no chance. I traveled with his campaign last week, and there's an enormous amount of excitement around him because he wants to completely change France, make it innovative and dynamic. And he's just going to upend the whole system.

MARTIN: And you've been talking to potential voters about this. What are they saying?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Michel, I was in a little town yesterday. Everyone there thought they were going to vote for Fillon, but now they don't know what to do. I spoke to a farmer named Erwann Humbert, and this is what he told me.

ERWANN 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.

BEARDSLEY: Now, Michel, I also spoke to another woman. She was elderly. She said she'd voted her whole life. And I said, well, how do you think things are going? She just laughed and she said, I feel like I'm watching a film. She said, this is a sign that everything is changing and France is entering a whole new era.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Eleanor, thanks so much for joining us.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered,where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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