By Robert Holloway
The first round of France’s two-tier presidential election has left voters to choose between two political outsiders whose views could not be more starkly opposed: Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European centrist, and the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen.
Sunday’s vote delivered crushing blows to both the Socialist party of outgoing President François Hollande and its main conservative rival, Les Républicains.
The immediate question is who will win the presidency after the second round of voting on May 7. But parliamentary elections in June will determine how he, or she, implements policy.
For the first time in more than half a century, neither main party has qualified for the second round of the presidential poll. Senior politicians on both sides were quick to warn against recriminations and in-fighting, but the impact on the legislative elections is hard to assess.
Macron is the opinion pollsters’ clear favorite to win the presidency. But the political movement he created a year ago — En Marche! — has no seats in the National Assembly.
Indeed Macron himself has never held elected office. A former banker, he was appointed as Hollande’s economic adviser and later made minister of the economy, a post he resigned to seek the presidency.
He has promised a 50-billion-euro ($53-billion) public investment program to modernize the French economy and pledged to cut unemployment to 7.0 percent from 9.7 percent, largely through training schemes. He wants to promote renewable energy, liberalize the country’s labor laws and cut company taxes.
The question for Macron is whether participation can be maintained.
While the first-round result was unprecedented, it was not unexpected.
Macron’s share of the vote — estimated by the Interior Ministry at 23.9 percent with almost all precincts reporting — and Le Pen’s 21.4 percent were very close to what opinion polls had been predicting in the final weeks of campaigning.
So too were the 19.9 percent scored by the Républicains’ candidate, former prime minister François Fillon, and the 19.6 percent for the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
What the polls got badly wrong was the turnout. Some forecasts suggested that more than a third of the electorate might abstain. In fact, turnout was above 78 percent, close to the figure reached in the last election in 2012.
The crucial question for Macron is whether that level of voter participation can be maintained in the second round.
He is the clear favorite to win. Polls conducted just before the first round suggested that he would trounce Le Pen by a margin of 62 to 38 percent in the decisive second round.
Senior politicians have endorsed Macron.
Macron has several advantages. His first-round margin over Le Pen, about 2.5 percentage points, was slim but significant. Had she emerged as the top scorer, that would have made Macron’s task much more difficult.
Second, senior politicians from both right and left were quick to endorse him.
Fillon, whose campaign was dogged by a legal investigation into allegations of misuse of public funds, conceded defeat, saying he would vote for Macron in the second round.
“It is not in my genes to abstain,” he told supporters. He said the National Front is known for its violence and intolerance, its economic and social policies would bankrupt France and Le Pen’s proposal to abandon the euro would lead to chaos.
“The only choice is to vote against the extreme right, and I will therefore vote for Emmanuel Macron,” he added to applause.
Le Pen’s campaign promises included a referendum on France’s membership in the EU, much tighter controls on immigration and import tariffs to protect the economy.
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate who was humiliated with a score of only 6.5 percent, also urged his supporters to vote for Macron on the second round so as to defeat the National Front “as strongly and as powerfully as possible.”
Hamon said that although Macron was not of the Left, “I make the distinction between a political opponent and an enemy of the Republic.”
The biggest danger for Macron seems to be complacency.
Other senior politicians made similar calls, although Mélenchon pointedly refrained from taking sides for the second round.
A third point in Macron’s favor is that fear of terrorism does not seem to have played as large a part in the election as some had forecast.
Le Pen repeatedly hammered the line that Hollande’s government had not made France safe despite the ongoing state of emergency that was declared after a massive terrorist attack killed 130 people and wounded more than 430 in central Paris in November 2015.
But even the shooting of a policeman on the Champs-Élysées — the most celebrated street in Paris — on April 20, three days before voting, did not push Le Pen’s share of the vote higher than forecast. Indeed, some National Front officials expressed disappointment that she did not fare better.
The biggest danger for Macron seems to be indifference and complacency.
If the turnout on May 7 is high, he is almost certain to become France’s new head of state, the youngest for centuries.
But if voters fail to heed the advice of senior politicians or if they do not bother to vote because they believe the result is a foregone conclusion, it might yet open the way for Le Pen.
Robert Holloway is News-Decoder Editor. A British-born French citizen, he had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. He joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief.