Despite a strong performance from far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the first round of France’s presidential election, the bigger news was the success of Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist who rode to victory with a counter-intuitive campaign that embraced globalisation, immigration and the European Union.
The polls suggest Macron will beat Le Pen soundly in the second round runoff on May 7. If he does, it could open the door to more ambitious reforms of the French economy and an elusive compromise with Germany on overhauling the troubled euro zone.
Just 39 years old and with only four years of political experience under his belt, Macron represents a generational change and a break from the left-right divide that has defined French politics for over half a century.
He will face formidable challenges as president. Nearly half of French voters opted for candidates on the extreme right and left of the political spectrum. These people are unlikely to embrace Macron’s liberal democratic vision, leaving France a deeply divided nation.
A president Macron could also struggle to cobble together a centrist majority in parliament after legislative elections in June.
But after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US, his first round victory – which comes after setbacks for far-right politicians in Austria, the Netherlands and Germany in recent months – shows that the political centre is holding in the heart of Europe.
“It looks as though populism is in retreat in Europe,” said Iain Begg of the London School of Economics.
Macron was the only candidate among the four frontrunners who embraced the idea of closer European integration during the campaign.
Le Pen and hard-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon were openly hostile, floating the idea of a French exit from the EU. And conservative Francois Fillon, in the Gaullist tradition, spoke mainly about boosting France’s influence in Europe.
At the post-election party at Porte de Versailles in the south of Paris, Macron supporters waved both French and EU flags. His victory was hailed from Brussels to Berlin on Sunday evening.
Overnight, Macron and Le Pen secured the two berths for the run-off in May 7 in a result that saw the two movements that have dominated French politics for 60 years eliminated in the first round, partial results showed.
Macron, who quit current president Francois Hollande’s Socialists only last year to launch a new party, led the way with over 23.54 per cent of the first round vote.
He led his Front National challenger Le Pen (22.33 per cent), with scandal-plagued Gaullist Francois Fillon and far-left challenger Jean-Luc Melenchon tied in third on 19.5 per cent.
Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon trailed in a distant fifth out of 11 candidates.
Macron thanked supporters, saying: “In a year we have changed the face of French politics.”
Thanking Fillon and Hamon for their early endorsements made during their concession speeches, he said: “Tonight I start to gather together the French people.
“I want to thank the millions of Frenchwomen and Frenchmen who voted for me.
“I am aware of the burden. It is a joy, but a serious joy, I feel tonight.”
Le Pen, whose father Jean-Marie stunned voters by qualifying for the run-off in 2002 before losing heavily to incumbent Jacques Chirac, told voters: “You have the choice of an alternative, a true one.
“What I propose to you is a big alternative, the fundamental alternative that will put other faces in power.”
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