For the French, a presidential election that couldn't get much stranger

Underdogs are edging the establishment. Scandals are turning frontrunners into also-rans. This French presidential election has had more surprises – and less substance, many say – than any in the republic's modern history.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters/File
People walk under La Canopée (the Canopy) at Les Halles in Paris, in April 2016. La Canopée, an undulating roof designed by French architects Jacques Anziutti and Patrick Berger, was inaugurated with the new Forum des Halles after six years of reconstruction as a new cultural and shopping center.

Public exasperation with the French presidential election is on full display here this year. “J’en ai marre,” or “I’m fed up,” is an oft-repeated response at the Forum des Halles shopping mall and transport hub in Paris on a recent day.

But underneath the frustration with the season's dramatic political turns is a deep probing about what all this drama portends.

The latest chapter came at the start of this week, less than two months before the election. The French were anxiously waiting to see whether the right-wing candidate François Fillon would step down amid a corruption scandal that caused mass intraparty defections from his “sinking ship” candidacy.

Mr. Fillon ultimately stood his ground. But it’s anyone’s guess whether the man who was once the clear favorite – before allegations that he paid his wife with public funds for work she didn’t do – will face fresh charges by the time ballots are counted, and how it all might sway the high-stakes race.

For now, polls show Fillon won’t make it to the run-off. Neither will left-wing candidate Benoît Hamon, despite his distance from the policies – and record-breaking unpopularity – of Socialist President François Hollande. If the election were held today, the run-off would feature far-right leader Marine Le Pen – despite her own “fake jobs” scandal – and Emmanuel Macron, whose “En Marche” party is less than a year old.

That’s assuming nothing else happens, or emerges, from now until then.

“It’s too crazy. We really don’t know what is going to happen the next day, or even the next hour,” says Michael Kermaidic, a student, after he’s picked up his tickets for the movie “Trespass Against Us” at the Forum des Halles.

This shopping complex is fitting of the new era. It stands on the site of a bazaar dating back to 1137. From the mid-19th century until the 1970s, it was the traditional glass-and-cast-iron food market of Paris that was thriving at the start of “Les Trente Glorieuses,” the 30-year postwar boom. But before the era came to an end in 1975, it was demolished, and an unloved underground mall built in its place. Last year it got a major overhaul called the “metamorphosis.” Now a massive canopy of glass scales, La Canopée, covers the complex. Le Figaro newspaper described it as “a vulgar flying saucer.”

And that’s exactly how many people view the “metamorphosis” of the French political scene. “Politics has become an American show,” scoffs one woman as she hurries under La Canopée en route to the more-loved Pompidou Center. “A big spectacle, and very few ideas.”

Virginie Bourdain is under La Canopée, heading to her work at a books and music store. She also believes a political transformation is under way. If Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Macron become the next president of France, mainstream politicians will be booted out of the Élysée for the first time in the Fifth Republic, which spans her lifetime.

But far from feeling optimistic about the potential for renewal, she worries that people are so fed up with a race of political infighting that they’ll stay home.

“I’m worried that, as in the US, the angriest will wake up and vote, and Marine Le Pen will be our next president,” she says. A poll for Le Monde and Franceinfo this week showed 58 percent of respondents saying that Le Pen's National Front is a threat to democracy.

A poll on Thursday showing Macron taking the lead in the first round over Le Pen might ease concerns – were it not for the volatility of this race.

Philippe, who was 8 years old when World War II broke out and doesn’t want to share his last name, says France is entering into a “new period, a period of error.” But as he stands outside the La Canopée in front of the 16th century church of Saint-Eustache, he says it can be corrected by talking about politics without drama or oversimplification. “We have to stop talking about Marine Le Pen just because she is Marine Le Pen. We have to discuss her platform.”

“I, for example, think Marine Le Pen would be a disaster, not because she is Marine Le Pen, but because I’m a convinced European, and she wants to take France out of the EU,” he says.

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