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In France Voters adrift as unconventional election looms

Millions remain undecided and nearly half of likely voters say they could still change their minds.

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The five main French presidential candidates' (left to right) right-winger Francois Fillon, centrist Emmanuel Macron, hard-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, far-right Marine Le Pen and left-wing Socialist Benoit Hamon play

The five main French presidential candidates' (left to right) right-winger Francois Fillon, centrist Emmanuel Macron, hard-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, far-right Marine Le Pen and left-wing Socialist Benoit Hamon

(POOL/AFP)

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One month before the French cast their first votes for president, mainstream parties are battling for relevance as anti-establishment candidates such as Marine Le Pen come to the fore.

The far-right Le Pen shares pole position in the run-up to the April 23 first round with Emmanuel Macron, who professes to be neither left nor right.

Polls show that Macron, 39, would rout the 48-year-old Le Pen in the decisive run-off on May 7 if the election were held today.

Both have tapped into a deep vein of discontent over politics as usual after successive governments, both left and right, have failed to lift France out of its economic torpor or mend its social divides.

"The French are wondering whether politicians still have any power over the course of events," political consultant Stephane Rozes told AFP.

Only 17 percent of voters questioned in an Ipsos poll last month gave high marks to France's democratic system.

Millions remain undecided and nearly half of likely voters say they could still change their minds.

As Pascal Perrineau, head of political research at Sciences Po university, put it: "The French are not happy with the cast of characters."

Threat of jihadist attacks

A re-election bid by former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy was thwarted by voters' desire for change, but his Socialist successor Francois Hollande's failure to deliver has made him one of France's most unpopular presidents ever.

Voters are angry over a sluggish economy, fearful over the impact of globalisation and mindful of the ever-present threat of new jihadist violence.

An attack at Paris' Orly airport at the weekend was a stark reminder of the threat, with a man shot dead after he tried to grab a female soldier's rifle.

Hollande said it provided the latest justification for the state of emergency first imposed after the deadly November 2015 attacks in Paris.

Since then, the measures giving police extended powers of search and arrest have been renewed several times -- each time raising red flags over civil liberties.

The climate of fear has stoked debate over the place of France's large Muslim community in society, crystallised by a controversy last summer over the body-concealing burkini swimsuit.

Hollande, who decided in December not to seek re-election, leaves the traditional left deeply divided between those committed to Socialist ideals and party pragmatists, said pollster Bruno Jeanbart.

In their January primary the party failed to pick a compromise candidate, instead settling on Benoit Hamon, 51, who represents those who "remain attached to idealism", said Jeanbart, of the Opinionway polling institute.

Hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, in fifth place in the polls, has rejected an alliance with Hamon, further dimming hopes that the left can rebuild a viable political force.

On the right, deep legal woes have upended the candidacy of Francois Fillon, previously the hands-down favourite to win in May.

Fillon, 63, was the surprise winner of the rightwing Republicans party's primary after campaigning on his probity.

He was charged last week with misuse of public funds over payments totalling 680,000 euros to his Welsh-born wife Penelope between 1986 and 2013, the most glaring of several scandals dogging the candidate.

Anything can happen

The former prime minister sought to shift the focus to his cost-cutting platform in a debate on Monday among the top five presidential candidates.

As election day gets closer, natural Fillon supporters "may say to themselves that he has the better programme," regardless of anything else, Jeanbart said.

A point in Fillon's favour is that he is the only one of the top three candidates who would be able to secure a majority in parliament -- Le Pen or Macron would be forced to negotiate a coalition.

Still, pollsters currently project a second-round landslide for Macron over Le Pen with a margin of more than 20 points.

"But in the next 30 days who knows what else may happen to shake things up?" said Gael Sliman of the Odoxa polling institute.

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