The far-right female National Front leader will go head-to-head with the 39-year-old favourite to win the presidency.
Paris, France – For the first time in modern French history, the runoff vote will not feature a single presidential candidate from a mainstream party.
On Sunday, tens of millions of people will choose between Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old centrist who – himself disillusioned with traditional political groups – founded En Marche! (On The Move!) last year, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who until recently was running under the National Front party.
After securing her place in the final, Le Pen stepped down from the party, a measure she says will allow her to represent better the interests of “all French people”.
Le Pen is the more obvious populist leader – her slogan is “in the name of the people”. But Macron, too, has exhibited some populist tendencies.
He has repeatedly said he wants a new kind of politics, called for the reform of his beloved European Union and set up not a party to the left nor right, but a “movement”.
“In a broader sense, his populism can be seen as a case of soft populism, a homoeopathic remedy to the hard populism expressed by his competitor: an anti-populist populism,” said Fabio Bordignon, who teaches Political Science at Italy’s University of Urbino Carlo Bo.
Jason Cowley, editor of Britain’s New Statesman magazine, describes Macron as “that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre”.
That two outsiders won most votes on April 23 in the first round, followed by the Trotskyist-turned-populist-leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, marks a momentous change. Mainstream parties are breaking down.
Traditionally, France chooses between two political bands.
The left wing centres around the Socialist Party of Francois Hollande, an outgoing president so deeply unpopular that he made the unprecedented move not to run again, and Benoit Hamon, this year’s candidate who came last of the major runners.
The right rallies around The Republicans, which failed in the first round as its hopeful, Francois Fillon, was embroiled in a corruption scandal.
“Political life in France was cut off between two political parties for 50 years,” explained David Bobin, an editor at CNews, a digital channel. “I think the French wanted to have new faces.”
While Macron, the strong favourite, caters to voters “between the left and right”, Le Pen “takes advantage” of people’s fears, such as concerns over the economy, Bobin told Al Jazeera.
Unemployment is at the heart of those fears, arguably the top voter concern.
France’s unemployment rate runs at around 10 percent, more than double the level of Germany and Britain, and higher than the eurozone average.
It has not dipped below nine percent since before the global economic crisis of 2008.
Macron has promised to slash that figure by three percent, while Le Pen says state-led industrialisation and greater taxes on foreign workers will boost employment.
“Populism is on the rise all over Europe,” said Samia Hathroubi, European director of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
“It’s a clear trend, but it seems that none of the traditional parties knows how to tackle it and how to respond to the economic crisis and its consequences.”
We have seen hundreds of debates about Islam and identity, but apart from Marine Le Pen, no one is addressing the losers of globalisation.
The two oft-cited examples of a gripping populist wave in the West – the election of US President Donald Trump and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union – were also soaked in fears over joblessness.
Trump promised more jobs at every campaign stop, and those lobbying for a so-called Brexit – particularly the populist United Kingdom Independence Party – assured voters that stronger borders would prevent economic migrants from snatching opportunities from hard-working Britons.
“The economy is the first issue for voters,” said Hathroubi. “We have seen hundreds of debates about Islam and identity, but apart from Marine Le Pen, no one is addressing the losers of globalisation.”
Macron, meanwhile, a former economic minister under Hollande, finds it hard in some quarters to shake his old connections.
“One of the biggest debates happening today is whether or not people should vote for Macron in order to prevent a Le Pen victory,” said Hathroubi.
The last time the far-right made it this far was in 2002, when Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was up against the right-wing Jacques Chirac, who ultimately won.
“In 2002, it was clear. Even if people didn’t vote for Chirac in the first round, they voted for him in the second,” Hathroubi said.
“Now it is no longer clear, because Macron is seen as someone who will continue to increase social inequality as Hollande did – Macron was his minister.”
Le Pen, a master of tapping into people’s greatest anxieties, has railed around what she terms “savage globalisation”.
At a recent campaign stop in the northern city of Amiens, Macron’s hometown, she upstaged her rival at the Whirlpool factory, which is threatened with outsourcing.
As Le Pen posed for the media on the picket line among a sea of worried workers, Macron met in a more sober setting with union leaders behind closed doors.
“Globalisation scares people: manufacturing factories are closing and moving, robotisation is slowly taking over and no answers are given,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a PhD candidate and researcher in public law at the University of Toulouse.
“Youth unemployment is also a major issue that has not been tackled accordingly …The current economic situation actually drove young French voters towards Le Pen.”
Youth unemployment is around 24 percent – far lower than Spain and Greece but way off Germany’s 7.7 percent – Europe’s most successful employer of young people. And according to some polls, almost 40 percent of young people intend to vote for Le Pen.
But while concerns over unemployment have contributed to the populist sentiment of the French election so far, so too has the stark inability of traditional parties to address concerns that they are simply not engaged – perhaps proving the point.
“Clearly, the most important issue for voters in this election is unemployment,” Pierre Bocquillon, a lecturer of politics at Britain’s University of East Anglia, told Al Jazeera.
“I think the result [of the first round] really reflects a profound crisis of both the mainstream left and right parties. This election reveals a recomposition of both the left and right. Many people are tired of incumbent politicians and don’t feel represented by the two main parties.”