Macron faces Le Pen for French presidency as mainstream parties bow out early

Eric Feferberg, AFP | French presidential election candidate for the En Marche! movement Emmanuel Macron arrives on stage to deliver a speech in Paris, on April 23, 2017, after the first round of the presidential election.

Independent centrist Emmanuel Macron will face anti-EU, anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen in the French presidential run-off duel on May 7, according to initial estimates after Sunday’s hotly contested first round.


If Macron tops the first round – his score two hours after polls closed was estimated at 23.9 percent, 2.2 points up on the populist Le Pen, according to estimates by the Ipsos firm – it would somewhat salvage France’s reputation in Europe after the Europhobe Le Pen had topped polls for months before figures tightened down the stretch. If he doesn’t, Europhiles will have to be content with the fact that the other Europhobe in this race, the far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, monsieur momentum in the final days, did not advance to a showdown with Le Pen that would have spelled almost certain existential crisis for the European Union.

Le Pen matches her father’s achievement in 2002, when National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the country by making the run-off with 16.86 percent of the vote. But the younger Le Pen’s performance, far from a surprise, is a radically different exploit. Initial estimates show she has reached the second round with nearly five points more than Le Pen père scored 15 years ago and with a much higher estimated voter turnout.

Moreover, the senior Le Pen found himself pitted against incumbent president, former prime minister, and former Paris mayor Jacques Chirac in the 2002 run-off, eventually losing by a landslide 82.2 percent to 17.7 percent. This time, Marine Le Pen faces a neophyte politician in the 39-year-old Macron. The latter served as an Élysée Palace advisor and economy minister under unpopular outgoing Socialist President François Hollande, but he has never been elected to any post.

Marine Le Pen's speech after Sunday's first-round vote

Polls have universally put Macron well ahead of Le Pen in surveys testing a run-off between the pair, but the vote on May 7 is likely to be considerably closer than the 2002 final. A Harris Interactive poll released Sunday night after the first round showed Macron scoring 64 percent ahead of the run-off to Le Pen’s 36 percent. A Cevipof poll released Wednesday put Macron at 61 percent to Le Pen’s 39 percent. Another poll this week, by the Elabe firm, put him at 62 percent.

But the result sets up a duel that Marine Le Pen will likely relish: the opportunity to wield her anti-establishment rhetoric against a former investment banker who attended two of France’s elite schools (Paris’s Institute of Political Studies -- Sciences Po Paris -- and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, which trains the country’s top public servants) and who rose to power as the protégé of the unpopular Socialist Hollande.

The two run-off candidates will present French voters with stark choices, not least with regard to the European Union. The Europhile Macron, who won an explicit endorsement from German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble before the first round, faces Le Pen, who wants to re-establish France’s national borders and whose programme calls for a referendum on France’s membership in the bloc.

"I want to be the president of the patriots against the threat of nationalists," Macron told cheering supporters after Sunday's vote.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Sunday night congratulated Macron for his first round result and “wished him good luck for what follows”, according to the Commission’s chief spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, on Twitter.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also welcomed Macron’s success on Sunday night, calling the French centrist “the only pro-European candidate who didn’t hide behind prejudices against Europe”. Gabriel, a Social Democrat, said, “I’m sure that [Macron] will become the new French president,” according to the German news agency dpa.

Emmanuel Macron's speech after Sunday's first-round vote

What is also clear at this hour is that the result will rock French politics to its core as neither of the two mainstream parties that have governed France for decades will advance to the final.

There will be soul-searching in the conservative camp after Les Républicains candidate François Fillon’s defeat in an election once considered impossible to lose. 

Hollande was so unpopular that he declined to stand for re-election, becoming the first single term French president since the dawn of France’s Fifth Republic in 1958 to do so.

Fillon, the onetime runaway favourite to win this election after he eliminated party heavyweights Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé in November’s conservative primary, scored 19.5 percent of the vote, according to initial estimates. Fillon’s run was marred by scandal, including but not restricted to alleged fake parliamentary jobs occupied by his family members. The drumbeat of allegations culminated in Fillon being placed under formal investigation in March, along with his wife, Penelope.

But Fillon may have spared his party a divisive crisis of conscience on Sunday night by immediately and clearly stating that he would back Macron in the second round in order to keep the National Front from power. In a short concession speech from his campaign headquarters, Fillon told gathered supporters, “There is no other choice but to vote against the far right. I will vote for Emmanuel Macron.” Party luminaries have wrestled in the past with the question of whether or not to back a candidate against the National Front when a conservative failed to make a final in mid-term elections, but the party had never faced the dilemma in the country’s ultimate election.

The other mainstream party to be defeated in this race managed to do so even more spectacularly. Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon scored 6.2 percent on Sunday, according to initial estimates, an ignominious result barely above the five percent score that allows a candidate to recoup his campaign expenses from public funds.

The heavy defeat saw Hamon surpassed on his left flank by the populist Mélenchon, who looks to have matched Fillon with 19.5 percent of the vote, and on his right by Macron, who drew support from centre-left elements within the Socialist Party. In fact, the Socialist Party’s result merely confirms the party’s very public identity crisis, underlining as it does splits in the party that marred Hollande’s five-year term. Hamon, who lost his job as education minister under Hollande in 2014, was a key figure in a movement of dissident Socialist Party “frondeurs” – or insubordinates – who vocally criticised the Socialist government.

True to Socialist Party form -- Socialists threw massive support behind Chirac to defeat Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 -- Hamon immediately called for Socialists to back Macron.

Mélenchon, meanwhile, did not give a clear endorsement in his concession speech on Sunday night. “I received no mandate from the 450,000 people who decided to present my candidacy to express myself on their behalf beyond that. So they will be called to decide for themselves on the [Internet] platform and the result of what they decide will be made public.”

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