Today, five of France’s presidential candidates will appear in a televised debate, where they are expected to outline their plans for the social and economic future of the country, as well as international issues.

French elections are usually a two-horse race between the conservative Les Republicains and the left-wing Socialist Party. But this year we see a different scenario. In addition to the centre-right candidate Francois Fillon and socialist Benoit Hamon, three other candidates are in the running: Emmanuel Macron , an independent; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the far-left group La France Insoumise (Unbowed France); and Marine Le Pen, a populist leader from the far right.

According to a recent Odoxa poll, Macron is expected to stay just ahead of Le Pen in first-round voting by half a percentage point, and then to beat her more emphatically in the second round (64% to 36%). Another poll by Kantar Sofres-OnePoint, shown below, shows a similar trend for the first round, with Macron and Le Pen tied on 26%, ahead of Fillon on 17%.

Image: Kantar Sofres-OnePoint

People and promises

Basically, for months, the most important issues have been unemployment and France' economic recovery, with immigration and security close behind. Here’s what each candidate will focus on:

Emmanuel Macron - the independent centrist

Macron, 39, the former investment banker and former economy who resigned from Hollande's government last year, is the polls’ favourite.

He is choosing a strategy to carry out structural reforms. This includes cutting corporate tax to 25% from the current 33.3% over the next term and cutting public-sector headcount by 120,000. An additional 60 billion euros in public spending would be cut over the next five years. The survey above, conducted among a sample of about 1,500 people, shows that voter intentions are increasingly solidifying with regard to the first round, which is scheduled for 23 April.

Visit the candidate’s programme here.

Marine Le Pen - the populist

Le Pen, 48, a former lawyer, is seen as having turned the Front National into a populist movement. Anti-immigration and anti-EU, Le Pen proposes holding a referendum on EU membership; she wants to bring France out of the euro. She has also said that “Frexit” would not be an economic catastrophe for France, and that Italy would follow.

The Front National leader’s manifesto for the 2017 presidential election proposes taxes on imports and on-the-job contracts of foreigners, lowering the retirement age and increasing several welfare benefits while lowering income tax.

For many, the Front National remains firmly anchored on the far-right. Le Pen, after all, advocates an end to globalization and has expressed her intention to replace free trade with a new patriotic model of “intelligent protectionism”.

Fillon - the controversial candidate

Fillon, 63, was prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy for five years. Today’s debate is expected to be an opportunity for the conservative candidate to reinsert himself into the race, although polls suggest he won’t qualify for the run-off.

Fillon faces mounting pressure from his own party to withdraw from the running, as he has been accused of allegedly paying his British wife , Penelope Fillon, more than €800,000 for a "fictitious job" as his parliamentary aide. Fillon denies wrongdoing, calling it an "institutional coup d'état" by the left.

His economic proposals include scrapping the limit on weekly working hours, extending retirement age, slashing employment benefits and cutting 500,000 public-service jobs to fund tax breaks for companies. They also include a plan to overhaul the French social security system and revisit various free-market policies.

A combination picture shows five candidates for the French 2017 presidential election, Francois Fillon, the Republicans political party candidate, Benoit Hamon, French Socialist party candidate, Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader, Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche ! (or Onwards !), Jean-Luc Melenchon, candidate of the French far-left Parti de Gauche, in Paris, France, March 17, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann - RTX31HOJ
Frontrunners ... Fillon, Hamon, Le Pen, Macron and Mélenchon
Image: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

But that's not all

Also on the list are Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, who scored only 12% in Sunday's Odoxa poll, and left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 65. They are running fourth and fifth respectively. Hamon’s strongly left-wing programme includes reducing the working week from 35 to 32 hours and a basic income for all.

Mélenchon defends the idea of a “new Republic” that “gives power back to the people”. His programme includes a review of the European treaties to put an end to “austerity policies, the reduction of working time, and free health and education”.

The nomination deadline for candidates is less than two weeks away. The election will take place on two Sundays: 23 April and 7 May.

The debate, expected to take up a two and a half hour primetime television slot, will be an opportunity for the front-runners to outline their stance on everything from unemployment to taxes. More information on these campaign promises can be found at this website, where liberal think tank iFRAP has collated data on 50 themes and sub-themes and allows you to compare them.