By Sudip Kar-Gupta, PARIS (Reuters, May 7, 2017):
Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France on Sunday with a business-friendly vision of European integration, defeating Marine Le Pen, a far-right nationalist who threatened to take France out of the European Union.
The centrist’s emphatic victory, which also smashed the dominance of France’s mainstream parties, will bring huge relief to European allies who had feared another populist upheaval to follow Britain’s vote to quit the EU and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.
The 39-year-old former investment banker, who served for two years as economy minister but has never previously held elected office, will now become France’s youngest leader since Napoleon with a promise to transcend outdated left-right divisions.
Three projections, issued within minutes of polling stations closing at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. ET), showed Macron beating Le Pen by around 65 percent to 35 – a gap wider than the 20 or so percentage points that pre-election surveys had pointed to.
Even so, it was a record performance for the National Front, a party whose anti-immigrant policies until recently made it a pariah in French politics, and underlined the scale of the divisions that he must try to heal.
Le Pen’s high-spending, anti-globalisation ‘France-first’ policies may have unnerved financial markets but they appealed to many poorer members of society against a background of high unemployment, social tensions and security concerns.
The 48-year-old’s share of the vote was set to be almost twice that won by her father Jean-Marie, the last National Front candidate to qualify for a presidential runoff, who was trounced by Jacques Chirac in 2002.
The British Guaradian newspaper says Le Pen’s score marked a historic high for the French far right.
Despite a lacklustre campaign that ended with a calamitous performance in the final TV debate, she was projected to have taken more than 10 million votes, roughly double that of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he reached the presidential run-off in 2002. The anti-immigration, anti-EU Front National’s supporters asserted that the party has a central place as an opposition force in France.
Macron, who has never held elected office and was unknown until three years ago, is France’s youngest president. He will take over a country under a state of emergency, still facing a major terrorism threat and struggling with a stagnant economy after decades of mass unemployment. France is also divided after an election campaign in which anti-establishment anger saw the traditional left and right ruling parties ejected from the race in the first round for the first time since the period after the second world war.
Turnout was projected to have been the lowest in more than 40 years. Macron’s victory came not only because voters supported his policy platform for free market, pro-business reform, and his promises to energise the EU coupled with a leftwing approach to social issues. Some of his voters came from other parties across the political spectrum and turned out not in complete support of his programme, but to stop the Front National.
In a political landscape with a strong hard left and far right, Macron faces the challenge of trying to win a parliamentary majority for his fledgling political movement En Marche! (On the Move) in legislative elections next month. Without a majority, he will not be able to carry out his manifesto promises.
After the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US president, the race for the Élysée was the latest election to shake up establishment politics by kicking out the figures that stood for the status quo, ejecting the mainstream parties that have dominated French politics for 50 years and leaving the political novice Macron to do battle with the far right.
His victory comes after a bitter campaign with Le Pen in which she accused him of being part of an elite that did not understand ordinary people, and he said Le Pen represented the “party of hatred” that wanted a “civil war” in France. The run-off pitted France’s most Europhile candidate against its most Europhobe.
Hours before the end of campainging on Friday night, Macron’s campaign was hacked, which Paris prosecutors are investigating. Hundreds of thousands of emails and documents were dumped online and spread by WikiLeaks in what his campaign called an attempt at “democratic destabilisation”.
Macron, a former investment banker and senior civil servant who grew up in a bourgeois family in Amiens, served as deputy chief of staff to the Socialist president, François Hollande, but was not part of the Socialist party.
In 2014, Hollande appointed him economy minister, but he left government in 2016, complaining that pro-business reforms were not going far enough. A year ago, he formed En Marche!, promising to shake up France’s “vacuous” and discredited political class.
Macron campaigned on pledges to ease labour laws, improve education in deprived areas and extend protections for self-employed people.
The election race was full of extraordinary twists and turns. Hollande became the first president since the war to decide not to run again for office after slumping to record unpopularity with a satisfaction rating of 4%.
His troubled five-year term left France still struggling with a sluggish economy and a mood of disillusionment with the political class. The country is more divided than ever before. More than 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in little more than two years, the political class is questioning Islam’s place in French society, and more than 3 million people are unemployed.
The rightwing candidate François Fillon, one seen as a favourite, was badly damaged by a judicial investigation into a string of corruption allegations, including that he had paid his wife and children generous salaries from public funds for fake parliamentary assistant jobs.
The ruling Socialist party, under its candidate Benoît Hamon, saw its score plunge to 6%, while the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon finished third.
The final round marks a redrawing of the political landscape, away from the old left-right divide towards a contest between a liberal, pro-globalisation stance, and “close the borders” nationalism. Le Pen has styled the election as being between her party’s “patriots” and the “globalists” she says Macron represents.