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French voters reject mainstream politics in ‘revolutionary’ vote

Martin Bureau, Pool, AFP | Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon (left) and conservative nominee François Fillon are the big losers of Sunday's first round.

The first-round humbling of conservative candidate François Fillon and Socialist nominee Benoît Hamon marks the first time in over half a century that the traditional ruling parties of left and right both stumble at the first hurdle.

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It has been described as an “earthquake”, a “revolution”, and a “leap into the unknown”. In carrying political novice Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen to the second round of the presidential election on Sunday, French voters inflicted a crushing defeat on the two parties that have alternated in power in recent decades.

Neither the conservative Les Républicains, nor the ruling Socialists, will feature in the May 7 runoff. Blighted by scandals, the conservative candidate Fillon had to settle for third place with less than 20% of the vote. The defeat was even more brutal for Hamon, who slumped to the Socialists’ worst result in half a century with just over 6% of ballots cast.

‘Changing face of politics’

“In just one year, we have changed the face of French politics,” said a triumphant Macron, whose centrist pitch and so-called “progressive alliance” precipitated the country’s great political shake-up. Equally jubilant, his rival Le Pen said it was “time to liberate the people of France from the arrogant elites that seek to dictate their conduct”.

While their platforms could hardly be more different, both Macron and Le Pen had promised a clean sweep – as did hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who almost matched Fillon with over 19% of the vote, swatting aside the Socialists to become the new dominant force on the left of the political spectrum.

Their surge was consistent with a rollercoaster campaign that has chewed up and spat out countless establishment figures, from the incumbent François Hollande to his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, and from one-time frontrunner Alain Juppé to another former prime minister, Manuel Valls.

‘The unlosable has been lost’

Though Hamon picked up a mere third of Fillon’s tally, the latter’s defeat carries greater resonance.

The Socialists had already tasted defeat in the first round, back in 2002. Bruised by five gruelling years in power and bitterly divided, they had always looked destined for defeat. For the Les Républicains [formerly UMP], on the other hand, Sunday’s debacle was a case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The conservative Les Républicains had triumphed in local elections throughout Hollande’s troubled term. Only a few months ago, their nominee was seen as a shoo-in for the presidency. But Fillon’s carefully crafted image as the candidate of integrity was shattered when it emerged he had paid his wife and children almost 1 million euros from the public purse for allegedly fake jobs, and his campaign never fully recovered.

“The unthinkable has happened, the unlosable has been lost,” wrote right-wing daily Le Figaro on Monday. “It was an election we could not lose and yet it ends in a lamentable fiasco,” commented former party leader Jean-François Copé, whom Fillon trounced in primaries last November. “The right has been swept aside and so have the Socialists,” Copé added, urging France’s mainstream parties to “draw lessons” from their shambolic performance.

Both camps now have just over a month to pull themselves together in time for the June parliamentary elections. While the Socialists will be battling to stay alive, the Les Républicains will still fancy their chances of clinching a majority of seats and forcing the future president to share power. The second round of France’s presidential election is yet to take place, and already the parliamentary polls are looking like a last-chance “third round” for the country’s humbled political mainstream.

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