French voters chose centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen to compete for the presidency in May 7’s runoff.
With all votes now counted, Macron came first on 24.01 percent versus 21.3 percent for Le Pen. François Fillon, the mainstream conservative candidate of the Républicains party, and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, gained 20.01 and 19.58 percent of the vote respectively.
Here are six takeaways from Sunday’s first round:
1. Change and renewal
Macron, the former economy minister of highly unpopular Socialist President François Hollande, now looks like the overwhelming favorite to win the presidency after both Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon unambiguously urged their followers to vote for him. “Nothing would be worse than voting for the far right,” Fillon said. Macron has been seen consistently beating Le Pen by a 60/40 margin in most polls.
Voters also chose, in Macron, a candidate who lauded the European Union and vowed to reform it.
That means the French have chosen as the likely next president a man who was cycling by a beach three years ago when he was asked to enter active politics; a man who, two years ago, was the minister in Hollande’s cabinet who received most insults from the president’s own Socialist Party; and a man who, one year ago, launched a nondescript “political movement” from scratch, as he mulled running for mayor in a big French city.
Voters also chose, in Macron, a candidate who lauded the European Union and vowed to reform it, repeating from rally to rally that the EU was not a problem for France, but a solution.
Macron may have been helped by a long series of lucky strokes that crippled his adversaries — notably, Fillon’s scandals and Hamon’s hapless campaign. But his comfortable victory over Le Pen is also a victory of optimism over pessimism.
There is some ambiguity in his electoral success, as it is hard to tell whether voters flocked to him out of enthusiasm for his personality or program, or out of aversion for the traditional parties and generations of politicians who have long ruled France.
2. Populism beaten but not dead
Marine Le Pen had polled at around 28 percent of the vote in early February but fell sharply due to an underwhelming campaign that lacked sparkle. Sunday’s result was at the low end of what polls had predicted for her in the final days of the campaign. But together with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s 19 percent-plus, it means populists got more than 40 percent of the vote — rising to 49 percent when adding the many fringe candidates who competed in the first round. The presidential election is unlikely to bridge the big divide between the part of France that accepts globalization and European integration, and that which sees an open economy as the main cause of its social ills.
Macron, if he wins the presidency, will have to act fast to overcome the reservations or hostility of nearly half the French electorate. Before that, he may have to deal with a big chunk of Mélenchon voters who will choose to abstain in the second round. Relentless attacks by both the far-left upstart and Socialist Hamon against Macron and his platform cannot but have an impact on some voters. Furthermore, Mélenchon’s sudden rise in the polls in the last three weeks came, in part, from siphoning some Le Pen voters — who could return to their original choice in the second round.
3. The parliamentary election campaign starts Monday
Now a stone’s throw from the presidency, Macron has to focus on building a parliamentary majority, without which his role will be reduced to a symbolic and honorific one as early as June. The official support of the Socialists and Républicains for the second round doesn’t mean they will support him later — as leaders from both parties made clear Sunday night. Macron’s En Marche movement must now find 577 candidates to field in the June elections to the National Assembly (the lower house).
Macron himself said Sunday night he would start building up his parliamentary majority without delay. And he is counting on members of both the Républicains and the Socialist parties to help him do that. “I won’t ask where they come from as long as they agree [with him]” on reforming France and relaunching Europe, he said.
There lies the difficulty. In the next few weeks, he will have to square his stated desire for “new faces, new talents” in parliament, and his promise to field an equal number of men and women as candidates, with the realistic need to get a solid majority. He is counting on the momentum of a second-round win. That may underestimate the frustration and energy of the Républicains, who are bound to seek revenge in the polls in June.
4. The right without a leader
Fillon, the surprise winner of the Républicains primary last November, has led his party to the same political debacle the Socialists went through in 2002, when their candidate Lionel Jospin was beaten to the second round by Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father). Fillon was a poor campaigner, his candidacy was plagued by repeated scandals that led to formal criminal probe against him, and he tried to counter with a hard-right campaign on social issues that repelled centrist voters.
The Républicains are now without a leader and will go through weeks of internal strife pitting different factions against each other. One man waiting in the shadows is Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president and failed candidate in the primary against Fillon, who now hopes to lead his party to victory in June — or at least to limit the damage.
Sarkozy will count on the frustration of conservative voters who had reason to believe throughout last year that the 2017 presidential election was a once-in-a-lifetime, unlosable contest. And even though Macron appeals to a big chunk of center-right voters, it is not certain those people would opt for his movement, En Marche, in June.
If the Républicains manage to get a majority in parliament, Macron would have to appoint a prime minister from within the conservative ranks, and live through a period of so-called “cohabitation” — or divided government.
5. Farewell to the Socialist Party
As expected in the last few weeks, Benoît Hamon, who got a little more than 6 percent of the vote, has driven his party to near its historic low of 5 percent, reached in 1969. That led to two years of crisis and soul-searching that ended in 1971 with the creation of a new party by François Mitterrand — the party that died on Sunday.
Hamon was one of François Hollande’s ministers who became one of the fiercest critics of the president’s moderate economic policy. He went on to win the party’s nomination on a platform of ultra-left utopianism. He emphasized the party’s long-standing division between its reformist, liberal wing and the hard left more focused on the purity of principles. His virulent campaign against Macron, described as spokesman of the rich, only served to widen the split among voters and party officials.
It’s hard to see how the two rival wings of the party can now reconcile, even with a parliamentary election looming and under the threat of so many MP seats to lose. The differences laid bare by Hamon’s campaign cannot be reconciled overnight. Whether they join En Marche or form a new autonomous party, the center left will try to jump on the Macron wagon. That will leave the hard-core historical left of the party either to join the Mélenchon forces or to form yet another of the smallish parties the French left has made a habit of periodically creating.
6. Give it to the pollsters: They were right…
French pollsters confirmed their long track record of accuracy, with the top four candidates roughly in line with what had been predicted by several polling firms in the last week of the campaign. The decline of Le Pen, Mélenchon’s surge and the late, slight comeback of Fillon — who had polled as low as 17 percent right after the first allegations of embezzlement surfaced in late January — had all been factored in.
The turnout in Sunday’s first round was also roughly in line with that of the 2012 election, even though pollsters were warning a month ago that it might reach record low levels this year. But the cliffhanger nature of the last two weeks — with four candidates seen as having equal chances of making it to the second round — probably rekindled voters’ interest in an election that grew in intensity as the weeks went by.
The terrorist attack on the Champs Elysées in Paris on Thursday night, when a policeman was killed, didn’t seem to have a major impact on the first round’s result. Voters may have split equally between the “let’s stay calm” candidates, such as Macron or even Hamon, and the “let’s get tough” ones, like Le Pen and Fillon.
By: PIERRE BRIANÇON