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Macron beats Le Pen to win French presidency, toughest tasks to come

© Patrick Kovarik, AFP | A supporter of French presidential election candidate Emmanuel Macron celebrates in front of the Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris on May 7, 2017, following the announcement of the results of the French presidential election.

Text by Tracy MCNICOLL

Latest update : 2017-05-08

Independent centrist Emmanuel Macron has become France’s youngest-ever president after earning a decisive win the country’s run-off vote on Sunday.

The win marks a climax for Macron’s meteoric rise from relative obscurity, but the tough task of building a governing majority for his newcomer En Marche! movement is yet to come.

The 39-year-old political neophyte, who had never been elected to any office before winning his country’s top job on Sunday, beat anti-immigration Europhobe Marine Le Pen, with 66.06 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 33.94 percent, according to official results with virtually all of the votes counted.

Relief in Brussels

The wide margin of victory is not a record in French presidential politics – conservative President Jacques Chirac beat Le Pen’s father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, 82.2 percent to 17.8 percent in 2002 – but it does top all recent polling in a twist-after-twist presidential campaign.

With double her father’s score 15 years ago, the populist Le Pen’s figure nevertheless marks a watershed moment in the history of the far-right National Front. It affirms her place as a force to be reckoned with in French politics just as the country’s political landscape is in unprecedented flux after first-round defeats for both of the political forces on the conservative right and socialist left that have governed France for decades. In remarks shortly after polls closed on Sunday, Le Pen said, “The National Front… must deeply renew itself in order to rise to the historic opportunity and meet the French people’s expectations.” She pledged during her brief address to supporters to “propose to start this deep transformation of our movement in order to make a new political force.”

The pro-European Macron’s victory will have Brussels breathing a sigh of relief when a victory for Le Pen would have sent the European Union hurtling into existential crisis. In his first brief speech as president-elect, Macron pledged, “I will work to mend the ties between Europe and its citizens.” Indeed, Le Pen’s defeat marks a new setback for Europhobe populist parties across the bloc after recent defeats in the Netherlands and Austria. But it will be lost on no one that in France’s political new order, Le Pen, her pro-sovereignty ally Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and far-leftist Eurosceptic Jean-Luc Mélenchon, combined for nearly 50 percent of the French vote.

Macron's subdued victory speech

During his lightning rise to power, Macron benefitted from a long series of political unlikelihoods, including the elimination of not one but two favourites in each of the mainstream heavyweight parties’ political primaries. In selecting François Fillon for the conservative Les Républicains and Benoît Hamon for the Socialist Party -- each a hardliner on the right and left sides of the political spectrum, respectively – the party primaries left a wide political breach open in the center for Macron; Fillon’s sudden scandals crippled his campaign while Mélenchon’s charismatic campaign put him ahead of the less dynamic Hamon. At every step, Macron seized the advantage.

But the political newcomer, a one-time banker, former Elysée Palace advisor and ex-economy minister, was criticised for his behaviour on election night after the first round on April 23. His speech then was seen as inappropriately euphoric given he would face the populist Le Pen for the presidency; his decision to summon associates for a soirée at La Rotonde, a chic Paris brasserie, was blasted as triumphalism.

On Sunday night, Macron’s first, short speech as president-elect was distinctly solemn. “I know the the divisions in our nation that led some to cast a vote for the extremes; I respect them,” he said. “I know the anger, the anxiety, the doubts that a large part of you also expressed. It is my responsibility to hear them,” he added. Still, the centrist struck the optimistic tones that set his campaign apart, partly in the final fortnight showdown with Le Pen.

“We are the heirs of a great history and the great humanist message for the world,” Macron said. “We must carry them into the future and give them a new lifeblood.”

Le Pen's lacklustre record win

Populist spitfire Le Pen’s lower-than-expected score may well be the upshot of a lacklustre end to her nevertheless record run. Her televised debate performance on May 3 was roundly panned by pundits and the last polls before a media blackout on Friday at midnight already appeared to reflect voters’ poor assessment of that TV battle. Confusion over Le Pen’s plans for the euro currency after her post-first-round alliance with Dupont-Aignan may also have cost her support in the dying days of the campaign.

One savvy salvo in Le Pen’s run-off bid -- a stealth incursion onto Macron’s turf, his native Amiens, to visit striking workers at a Whirlpool plant slated for closure -- appeared to backfire when the centrist managed to turn Le Pen’s move to his advantage; Macron waded into a lion’s den to discuss the workers’ plight with them at length on the factory’s parking lot when Le Pen had done little more than pose for selfies with picketing employees.

Le Pen was never expected to win this race, but polling that saw her inching above 40 percent in voter intentions had spurred anxiety in some quarters. Le Pen’s niece, the ultra-conservative parliamentarian Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, had told the French daily L’Opinion as recently as Thursday that a 40 percent score would be “a huge victory” for the National Front.

No honeymoon in sight

Just moments after Macron’s first speech on Sunday night, the other headline populist in this race, Mélenchon, took the stage to call on his seven million first-round voters to mobilise for the legislative elections next month. “The legislative elections must show after a vote of refusal and fear, the moment has come for a positive choice,” he said. Mélenchon finished fourth in the first round and pointedly refused to explicit any backing for Macron against Le Pen.

High abstention estimated at 26 percent of registered voters and the more than 4.2 million voters who cast a blank or spoiled ballot in Sunday’s run-off, a record in a French presidential election, suggest a lack of enthusiasm for the new president-elect. Macron is unlikely to benefit from the honeymoon period enjoyed by his predecessors. But his most important, most difficult task has already begun: Turning his luck and momentum, and the disarray of his myriad political adversaries, into a majority that allows Macron to govern the country after legislative elections conclude on June 18.

Date created : 2017-05-07

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