Paris: France on Sunday shrugged off the siren call of right-wing populism that enchanted voters in the United States and United Kingdom, rejecting anti-E.U.
firebrand Marine Le Pen and choosing as its next president Emmanuel Macron, a centrist political neophyte who has pledged to revive both his struggling country and the flailing continent.
The result brought to a close a tumultuous and polarized campaign that defied prediction at nearly every turn, though not at the end. Pre-election polls had forecast a sizable Macron victory, and he appeared to have delivered, with projections issued after polls closed showing him with around 65 percent of the vote.
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A downcast Le Pen conceded defeat, telling her demoralized supporters in Paris that the country had “chosen continuty.” Meanwhile, a raucous celebration of Macron backers was getting underway outside Paris’s Louvre Museum. The outcome will come as a major relief to Europe’s political establishment, which had feared a Le Pen victory would throw in reverse decades of efforts to forge continental integration.
But it instantly puts pressure on Macron to deliver on promises made to an unhappy French electorate, including reform of two institutions notoriously resistant to change: the European Union and the French bureaucracy. At 39, the trim, blue-eyed and square-jawed Macron will become France’s youngest leader since Napoleon when he is inaugurated this weekend, and his election caps an astonishing rise. With a background in investment banking and a turn as economy minister under a historically unpopular president, he may have seemed an ill fit for the anti-establishment anger coursing through Western politics.
But by bucking France’s traditional parties and launching his own movement – En Marche, or Onward — Macron managed to cast himself as the outsider the country needs. And by unapologetically embracing the European Union, immigration and the multicultural tableau of modern France, he positioned himself as the optimistic and progressive antidote to the dark and reactionary vision of Le Pen’s National Front. Le Pen, 48, has long sought to become the first far-right leader elected in Western Europe’s post-war history. Sunday’s vote frustrated those ambitions, but is unlikely to end them.
By winning around 35 percent of the vote, she nearly doubled the share won by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the 2002 election, the only other time the National Front’s candidate has made it to the second round. The result seemed to cement the party’s long march from the political fringe to the center of the nation’s unhappy political discourse, if not the pinnacle of its power. Struggling with chronically high unemployment and recurrent terrorist attacks, France’s mood on the day of its presidential vote was reflected in the dark clouds and chilly spring rains that blanketed much of the country.
Nonetheless, the public voted at a rate that would be the envy of many Western democracies: From the chic neighborhoods of Paris to the struggling post-industrial towns of the French countryside, turnout nationwide was expected to reach 75 percent, down slightly from previous votes. No matter whom French voters picked, the choice was bound to be historic. The dominant two parties of France’s Fifth Republic were both eliminated in the first round. The center-left Socialists were decimated, brought low by the failure of current President Francois Hollandeto turn around the economy or to prevent a succession of mass-casualty terrorist attacks.
The center-right Republicans, meanwhile, missed what was once seen as a sure-fire bet at returning to power after their candidate, former prime minister Francois Fillon, was hobbled by a series of corruption allegations. The two candidates who remained, Le Pen and Macron, both traced an outsider’s path as they sought residence at the Élysée Palace. Of the two, Macron had the more direct route. But his campaign still had to overcome all the usual challenges of a start-up, plus some extraordinary ones – including the publication online Friday night of thousands of hacked campaign documents in a cyber-attack that aroused suspicions of Russian meddling.
The outcome of Sunday’s vote will have profound implications not only for France’s 67 million citizens, but also for the future of Europe and for the political trajectory across the Western world. After a pair of dramatic triumphs for the populist right in 2016 – with Brexit in the U.K., and Donald Trump in the U.S. – France’s vote was viewed as a test of whether the political mainstream could beat back a rising tide. Many of Europe’s mainstream leaders — both center-right and center-left – lined up to cheer Macron on after he punched his ticket to the second round in a vote last month. The endorsements were a break from protocol for presidents and prime ministers who normally stay out of each other’s domestic elections.
But they reflected the gravity of the choice that France faced. A victory by Le Pen was seen as a possible market-rattling death blow to decades of efforts to draw Europe more closely together, with the country’s new president expected to lead campaigns to take the country out of both the E.U. and the euro.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama had also endorsed Macron, and the young French politician often appeared to be trying to emulate the magic of Obama’s 2008 campaign with speeches that appealed to hope, change and unity — while eliding many of the details of his policies.
The current White House occupant, Trump, was uncharacteristically cagey about his choice, saying before the first round that Le Pen was “the strongest on borders and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” He predicted that she would do well, but stopped short of endorsing her.
On the campaign trail this spring, Le Pen’s rhetoric had often echoed Trump’s, with vows to put “France first” and to defend “the forgotten France.” She also condemned globalist cosmopolitans – Macron chief among them — who she said did not have the nation’s interests at heart.
But she had distanced herself from Trump since his inauguration, often declining to mention him by name, and analysts said her association with the unpopular American president may have hurt her among French voters. Macron shares almost nothing with Trump except one key fact: Like the New York real estate tycoon, Macron became president of his country on his first run for elective office. The son of doctors who was raised in the northern city of Amiens, Macron had to teach himself the basics of campaigning on the fly in the white-hot glare of a presidential race.
Macron, who vowed repeatedly during the campaign to borrow from both left and right, will now have to learn how to govern a country without the backing of any of its traditional parties. Instead, he has a movement that he built from scratch, and now faces the immediate challenge of getting En Marche allies elected to the National Assembly. That vote, due next month, will determine whether Macron has the parliamentary support he needs to enact an agenda of sweeping economic reforms, many of which are likely to unsettle the country’s deeply entrenched labor unions.
Despite his victory, pre-election polls showed that most of Macron’s supporters saw themselves voting against Le Pen rather than for him. That was reflected on the streets Sunday, with voters even in well-to-do and heavily pro-Macron neighborhoods of Paris saying they felt more resigned than excited. “On the one hand you have a far-right party that will take us straight to disaster,” said Gilbert Cohen, a retired 82-year-old engineer who cast his ballot amid the vaulted ceilings of Paris’s 17th century Place des Vosges, a former royal residence that was also home to Victor Hugo. “On the other, you have the candidate who’s the only reasonable choice we have.”
Cohen described Macron as “brilliant.” But, he said, the new boy wonder of French politics “can’t govern by himself.” Elsewhere in France, the mood was even more markedly downbeat. In Laon, a small and struggling city 90 miles north of Paris, many voters said they were so disillusioned by the choice that they would cast a blank ballot.
Others said their disenchantment had led them to Le Pen – and a hope that, despite the polls, she could still eke out a victory that would bring the radical break for France that they crave. “We’ve had 50 years of rule from the left and the right,” said Francis Morel, a 54-year-old bread maker who cast his ballot for Le Pen. “Nothing has changed.”
The mood was considerably more upbeat Sunday night in the central courtyard of Paris’s Louvre Museum, where flag-waving Macron supporters gathered in what was once the seat of French kings for their candidate’s victory celebration. Stéphanie Ninel, 31, a technician, said she had been at the Louvre since just after lunchtime, braving the chilly weather to snag a prime position in the crowd.
“I’ve been old enough to vote in three elections now,” she said. “But this is the first time I feel I’ve been able to vote for someone with actual conviction. He’s a new person, and he demands a new politics.”