Across the Channel

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Will a judge find that allegations against Mr Fillon are a load of bull?

French people will vote for a new president amid considerable political uncertainty in Europe and the world, following the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as US leader.

Eleven candidates will contest the first round of voting on 23 April. Unless one candidate wins more than 50% of the votes, the two leading contenders will then go through to a second round two weeks later on 7 May.

President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, is not seeking a second term – the first French president to do so in modern history. Polls suggest he is very unpopular.

What are the issues?

One of the overriding issues facing French voters is unemployment, which stands at about 10% and is the eighth highest among the 28 EU member states. One in four under-25s is unemployed.

The French economy has made a slow recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and all the leading candidates say deep changes are needed.

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Dozens of people were killed in Nice on Bastille Day in 2016

Security and immigration are also high on the agenda.

More than 230 people have died in terror attacks since January 2015 and France remains under a state of emergency. Officials fear more of the hundreds of young French Muslims who have travelled to Syria and Iraq may return to commit new atrocities.

The far-right Front National party has vowed to slash immigration and give jobs, welfare, housing and school provision to French nationals before foreigners.

Who are the candidates?

The early favourite was Francois Fillon of the centre-right Republican party. But he is now under formal investigation over allegations he paid his wife public money for work she did not carry out. See below for more on the ensuing scandal.

Mr Fillon is third in the polls.

He has been overtaken by Emmanuel Macron, a 38-year-old investment banker who was an economic adviser to President Francois Hollande before taking up the post of economy minister in 2014. Not only has he never been an MP – he has never stood for election.

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Ms Le Pen and the other candidates have made an obligatory appearance at the Paris Agriculture Fair

Macron’s popularity is closely matched by Marine Le Pen, who has worked hard to detoxify the image of the Front National (FN) after taking over as leader from her father. The FN came top in the first round of regional elections in 2015 but was defeated in the second round after major parties collaborated and voters voted tactically. Polls suggest the same could happen again.

Also in the field is former education minister Benoit Hamon, who has been dubbed the “French Bernie Sanders”. The left-wing rebel shot to prominence after his decisive win in the first round of France’s Socialist party primary, beating the favourite Manuel Valls.

What’s all this about a hologram?

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon scored the communications coup of the campaign. With a flick of his fingers, he appeared simultaneously at rallies in Lyon and Paris and created more internet buzz than he could have imagined.

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Mr Melenchon’s hologram appearance was a masterstroke

He and Ms Le Pen are the masters of social media – she has 1.3 million followers on Twitter, he has 215,000 YouTube subscribers.

The phenomenon of fake news has also made an appearance, with an Algerian news organisation picking up a spoof story that Ms Le Pen planned to build a wall around France and make Algeria pay for it.

Is the Fillon payment scandal fake news?

That’s what an investigating judge is hoping to find out.

Satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine says his wife Penelope was paid €831,400 (£710,000; $900,000) for work as a parliamentary assistant that she did not carry out. One report suggested she did not even have a parliamentary pass or a work email.

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Le Canard Enchaine has made a series of allegations about the Fillon family’s earnings

She is also said to have pocketed €100,000 for writing just a handful of articles for a literary review owned by a billionaire friend of the family.

Mr Fillon insists everything was above board and says the investigation against him is a “political assassination” designed to deny French voters the choice of a centre-right candidate.

What makes the Front National far-right?

Ms Le Pen is fighting to appeal to the centre and left of French politics after working to move the party away from the image of her father, who has been repeatedly convicted for hate speech and describing the Holocaust as a “detail of history”.

Media captionWhy people are voting for Marine Le Pen

Her appeal to voters who are fed up with mainstream politics is nothing unusual, but her policy of allocating public services to French citizens ahead of foreigners is central to the party’s platform.

The FN also has close ties with other European parties such as Austria’s far-right Freedom Party that mainstream right-wing parties want nothing to do with.

Why is the French countryside important?

Mr Fillon’s initial failure to show up at the annual agricultural show in Paris at the beginning of March was a big deal.

Though he appeared at the show later in the day, there was speculation that he might be preparing to step down.

All the successful candidates in past elections have lined up for a photo with a cow and a glass of beer or milk.

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Mr Macron drinks a glass of cow’s milk at the fair

And rural votes are emerging as an important battleground in this election.

A crisis in French farming and dwindling public services are pushing some voters towards the FN. Globalisation has not been kind to some French regions and many are tempted by promises of protectionism and closed borders.

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