PARIS — Do voters judge a book by its cover? France's presidential candidates certainly think they do, and more than ever are trying to get their political message across through their wardrobes.
With unemployment and economic woes topping voter concerns ahead of France's two-round April 23-May 7 presidential vote, candidates have vied for the most on-message branding.
Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron wears suits that cost about 350 euros ($370) from a small Parisian retailer. Whether political calculation or lucky coincidence, the move nicely contrasts with scandal-hit conservative candidate Francois Fillon, accused of elitism for exorbitantly-priced suits paid for by donors, including 13,000 euros ($13,800) for two recent suits.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen
On the other end of the political spectrum, far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon cultivates a tie-free image in an election shaped by anti-establishment sentiment — and jackets that evoke communist leaders.
And car factory worker Philippe Poutou, a far-left candidate who took just five weeks off work to run for president, stole the show at the last presidential debate with his messy hair, baggy sweater and sharp tongue that made him look like an "Average Joe" speaking truth to power.
Striking the right visual tone is especially crucial in France, capital of the cosmetic and fashion industries, and whose Parisian salons have set global style trends for centuries. Twitter, Instagram and other social media make a good presidential image more important than ever.
Fillon, 63, took a major blow in the polls over accusations of corruption that were aggravated by a report that he allegedly accepted gifts of designer suits worth more than 48,000 euros ($52,000). That fueled perceptions he was out of touch with ordinary French voters, many of whom are struggling. The
Fillon denies the corruption charges but his image has suffered anyway.
"Fillon's problems can be all summed up by his suits. He built a campaign around honesty and keeping scandals out of politics ... he became exactly the image of the thing he was fighting," said political image consultant Frank Tapiro.
Style consultant Emery Dolige agreed, calling the impact of Fillon's extravagant suits "catastrophic in the countryside and poorer areas."
Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon has also suffered image problems. The 49-year-old provoked online jabs for saying he often misplaces his spectacles, then appeared to forget to remove his reading glasses after reading a text during the first presidential debate. His glasses have spawned their own Twitter account.
Commentators speculated that Hamon utilized his glasses to project a down-to-earth image like an endearing, absent-minded teacher — but it backfired.
"He's always forgetting his glasses on his face. It's subliminal, but people read this as meaning he's not prepared to be president. You get the impression he's lost," said Tapiro. "We invented style in France. If you don't have a look of a president, you can't be president."
The telegenic Macron — at 39 the youngest of the candidates — has made much of his presentational style. Jean-Claude Touboul, co-owner of Jonas et Companie tailors, said the centrist front-runner has been a client for three years and regularly buys suits from the store in a dusty, multicultural area of Paris.
"We're not (luxury-lined) Avenue Montaigne. Our suits cost between 340-380 euros ($360-$400). Is it a political calculation? I don't know," Touboul told the AP. "Macron appreciates our cuts, which are a little fitted but not excessively and emphasize his youth."
Le Pen has dramatically softened her party's image since taking over from her hard-line father in 2011. But for this race, in which her major competitors are men, she has cut her blond hair and donned dark menswear-style suits. That contrasts sharply with the only other woman to be a top presidential contender in France, Segolene Royal, who wore bright feminine
Le Pen "has a conservative, masculine style to align with the attributes of authority and firmness," said image consultant Valeria Doustaly.
Far-leftist Melenchon, 65, is especially crafty with branding.
"The jacket he wears in all media opportunities is a worker's jacket that he bought from a shop that sells professional uniforms," said Dolige, referring to Melenchon's jacket with large collar, big buttons and pockets on the outside. The outfit has drawn comparisons to Communist leaders Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong.
Melenchon recently rallied against inequality in the southern city of Marseille against the backdrop of the glistening Mediterranean Sea on the same that day Fillon, hundreds of miles away in Paris, sweated uncomfortably during his indoor political rally at a convention
Melenchon, the oldest candidate, is also famously adept at tweeting and plans to use holograms to project a political rally across six French cities simultaneously. One commentator has branded him "Melen-show."
This story corrects that Marine Le Pen is not the only female candidate in France's presidential election.
Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamson_K