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Five charts to explain the key issues shaping France's presidential race

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By Lauren Chadwick
Fans wave French flags as Valerie Pecresse, candidate for the French presidential election 2022, delivers a speech during a meeting in Paris, France on 11 December 2021.
Fans wave French flags as Valerie Pecresse, candidate for the French presidential election 2022, delivers a speech during a meeting in Paris, France on 11 December 2021.   -   Copyright  Christophe Ena/AP Photo

From the "gilets jaunes" ("yellow vest") protests to the COVID pandemic to war on the doorstep of the EU, much has changed since Emmanuel Macron was elected five years ago.

But to what extent will these issues affect voters in France's presidential election in April. And, if not, what topics do matter to the French?

Here we take a look at what French voters care about the most.

Inflation and the cost of living

Recent polls have shown that purchasing power, the ability to buy goods, remains a top concern for French voters, especially amid record-high inflation in Europe.

Inflation hit 5.1% in the eurozone this year, driven up by energy prices and high demand following strict COVID-19 restrictions in many countries.

It's expected to rise by at least 2% more in the euro area due to the war in Ukraine, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

France's presidential candidates have different responses to voters' concerns about money, from far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon's suggestion to block prices and increase social measures, to far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Zemmour's calls to cancel social aid for foreigners to save money.

It's also launched a debate about the efficiency of sanctions against Russia and its influence on prices.

Concerns about purchasing power are interrelated with other economic concerns, experts say, such as energy prices, housing prices and travel costs.

Rising energy costs due to the Russian invasion are set to take centre stage during the election debate, with new conversations about dependence on Russian oil and gas.

"Soaring fuel prices make travel expensive and prevent people from living in areas other than urban centres where you can count on alternatives to owning a car," said Romain Meltz, a researcher at the Lumière University Lyon 2.

He added that French politicians don't have many answers for concerns about an urban/rural divide in France.

One of the most turbulent episodes of Macron's last five years in office was the "gilets jaunes" protests that erupted across the country in 2018 following a rise in the fuel tax.

Economist Nicolas Veron told Euronews that the economic situation will likely be both a "plus and a minus" for Macron as the French economy saw both record growth in 2021 at the same time as high inflation.

Security, defence and NATO membership

Terrorism dominated the end of François Hollande's time in office, becoming a major topic of the 2017 election.

While there have been terror incidents in France, including the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020, terrorism has been less at the forefront of the debate this election cycle.

"The issue of security can refer to such different concerns that by talking about security, we have a good chance of retaining the attention and addressing the concerns of many people," said Paul Bacot, a professor emeritus at Sciences Po Lyon.

"Security for some is the fight against terrorism. Today, it is much less present (so) it is the fight against petty crime which is said to be ruining the lives of many people," he added, while for others, the concern is financial insecurity, health insecurity and international security.

The war in Ukraine has meant that "the pro-Putin stances of some candidates are certainly hurting them, albeit unequally," Bacot said, influencing far-right candidate Eric Zemmour the most.

It has also put conversations about France's role in NATO into the spotlight with several candidates calling for an unaligned position and a withdrawal from the military alliance.

Far-left candidate Mélenchon would like to leave the military alliance, judging it as something that creates tension.

Macron has called for a European defence strategy, including a common military budget.

"We need to rebuild a European order of security and the war today in Ukraine makes it even more essential," Macron said while presenting his election programme.

Several right-wing candidates in the French election, including Le Pen, Zemmour and Valérie Pécresse have urged France to increase its defence spending.

Since 2017, France's defence spending has already risen by €7 billion in an effort to boost defence expenditures to 2% of GDP.

Environment

The environment remains a key concern for French people, with recent polls suggesting it was the third-largest issue for voters.

But it doesn't appear to have translated into large support for Green Party (EELV) candidate Yannick Jadot, who is currently polling at around 5-6% behind the right-wing, far-right and far-left candidates. Some hoped the success of the Greens in many major cities in France during the 2020 municipal elections would translate to more votes on the national stage.

While Macron has promised to tackle climate change and take steps to protect the environment, environmental activists have condemned his alleged inaction.

Environmental issues "very much count for voters but it hasn't emerged as a salient theme of the election," said Meltz, at the Lumière University Lyon 2.

"The French are both very keen to act strongly against the damage linked to global warming and at the same time, they are strongly attached to nuclear power," he added.

Two-thirds of France's electricity comes from nuclear energy and sanctions against Russia have influenced calls for an adjustment to Europe's dependence on oil and gas imports, with calls for a faster transition to green energy.

While Jadot would like to see France end its reliance on nuclear power, incumbent Macron sees it as part of France's future.

As average annual temperatures in France rise significantly, the climate crisis is already being felt in the country.

A report from France's insurance federation late last year said insurance claims due to natural disasters caused by climate change could reach €143 billion between 2020 and 2050.

A group of 26 environmental NGOs recently rated presidential candidates and determined that only Mélenchon and Yannick Jadot's programmes were mostly validated as beneficial for combatting climate change.

COVID-19 pandemic

The past two years of politics have been consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including restrictions on daily life imposed by the government.

Presidential candidates have criticised Macron's handling of the crisis including the introduction of a vaccine pass in January that required vaccination or recovery from COVID-19 in order to access restaurants and other areas of public life.

Ahead of the election, the French government suspended the measure as COVID-19 cases decrease after an Omicron peak in February.

Both left-leaning and right-leaning politicians had criticised the vaccine pass, with far-right candidate Le Pen saying it restricted individual freedoms and that she would get rid of it instead of just a suspension.

But candidates are also treading carefully, as more than 78% of France's population is vaccinated against COVID-19 and many supported the COVID-19 measures.

Bacot says the pandemic is not "very present in the themes of speeches" even as polls have shown it's a top concern for voters.

"It is clear that on Macron's side, they'll say the results were positive in the fight against the virus, while the opposition will say that there were a lot of failures."

Immigration

Immigration is a controversial topic in France and has once again been a big topic of the election debate, particularly among right-leaning candidates.

Le Pen and Zemmour have called for the cutting of social allocations to foreigners and reserving these benefits for French citizens. They have also called for limiting the entry of asylum seekers.

Their hardline immigration views come against the backdrop of an increase in migration to Europe in 2021 by 57% compared to 2020.

The situation on the European Union's border with Belarus with countries such as Poland and Lithuania reinforcing their borders to prevent the arrival of migrants launched a debate about the EU's migration policy.

Some presidential candidates supported the construction of border fences and others say Europe should work harder to welcome asylum seekers and follow its own values.

Last November, a migrant boat capsized in the English Channel killing 27 and drawing more attention to the plight of asylum seekers in northern France. The UK criticised French actions, stating that they need to patrol the northern coast better, while Macron's government has said it's not possible to patrol the entire coast.

Far-left candidate Melenchon said that these migrants should have been treated "with humanity", opening a humanitarian corridor to allow them to travel legally to the UK.

Now, with the war in Ukraine, there's a refugee crisis at Europe's borders. More than 4.3 million Ukrainian refugees have fled the country, with more than 3.8 million arriving in EU countries.

Legal immigration, meanwhile, increased in 2021 in France by around 21% following a pandemic year where applications were closed for a period during lockdown but the numbers remain low with immigrants representing a mere 10% of France's population.

Many other topics have come to the forefront of the election debates including retirement, taxes, education, and social inequality.

Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo has called for increasing wages for teachers and EELV candidate Jadot wants to invest more in higher education.

Mélenchon and Le Pen have called for bringing the retirement age down to 60. Zemmour would like people who work more to be paid more and for the retirement age to increase to 64. Macron would like to raise the retirement age to 65.

As the campaign picks up ahead of the 10 April election, the debate is sure to evolve on themes such as social inequality, security, inflation and more.