Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Macron vs Le Pen

Two anti-system candidates are heading into the second round of the French presidential elections after a hard-fought first-round campaign

Macron vs Le Pen

France heaved a sigh of relief on Sunday night as the news came through that Emmanuel Macron, the youthful leader of the centrist En Marche! (Let’s Go!) Movement, would be facing extreme-right Front National Party leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the country’s presidential elections on 7 May.

The projected results, published an hour or so after the polling stations closed in metropolitan France on Sunday evening, showed Macron set to fight Le Pen for the presidency in the run-offs after a campaign that saw dramatic surprises, personal and political successes and failures, and occasional panic from those fearing dramatic surges in support for either the extreme right or the extreme left of French politics.

Macron vs Le Pen

According to the official figures published early on Monday morning by the French Interior Ministry and then updated over the course of the day, Macron came out top with 23.86 per cent of the vote, followed by Le Pen at 21.43 per cent, meaning that both now go through to the second round of the elections in May.

Mainstream right Républicains Party candidate François Fillon scored 19.94 per cent of the vote, followed by left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon at 19.62 per cent. Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon received only 6.35 per cent, confirming the collapse of the French Socialist Party at the polls.

The abstention rate was comparatively high at 21.31 per cent, though no larger than it has been before in recent years. According to Interior Ministry figures, 8,528,585 people voted for Macron, and 7,658,990 million for Le Pen, meaning that Macron scored a convincing victory of more than three-quarters of a million votes.

Support for Macron was concentrated in southwest France and the larger cities, while Le Pen came out top along the Mediterranean coast, in northern France and along the German border. French territories overseas were a mixed bag, some seeing a majority vote for Macron, some for Fillon, some for Mélenchon, but none for Le Pen.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, analysing the results on Monday, one of the most striking aspects of the results, apart from the collapse in the establishment parties and the ongoing rise of the extreme-right Front National, was the contrast between Paris and other large French cities and the rest of the country, believed to have suffered more from problems such as unemployment and declining levels of economic activity.

In Paris, the newspaper said, Macron had received 34.38 per cent of the vote, 11 per cent above his national average, whereas Le Pen had not even managed to cross the border line of five per cent (at 4.99 per cent of the vote). There were numerous examples of a similar contrast elsewhere in the country, the paper said, with large urban centres voting for Macron or Fillon, and rural areas and areas of high unemployment voting for Le Pen.

“While Le Pen received 16.26 per cent of the vote in the Rhone,” Le Monde said, an area of southern France, “she only got 8.86 per cent in the city of Lyon… In the Lower Rhine [on the German border] she received 24.89 per cent of the vote, but only 12.17 per cent in the city of Strasbourg.”

In the light of the results as a whole the only unknown now is likely to be the size of the landslide Macron will enjoy in the second round of the elections. These are being widely seen as furthering his momentum as he prepares to take office as not only France’s youngest ever president, but also as the first under the present electoral system not to have run on the ticket of either of the country’s major parties.

Soon after the results were known on Sunday night, two of the defeated candidates, Fillon and Hamon, urged their supporters to switch on the second round to voting for Macron if only as a way of blocking any possibility of victory for Le Pen.

“The Front National is known for its violence and its intolerance. Its policies would lead our country to disaster and to chaos in Europe as a whole. There is no other choice than to vote against the Front National” in the second round of the elections, Fillon said.

In a similar situation in 2002 when former French president Jacques Chirac was standing against then Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen, in the second round of that year’s presidential elections, voters from across the political spectrum came together behind Chirac’s candidacy as a way of blocking Le Pen, delivering him a resounding victory with 82.21 per cent of the vote.

According to French opinion polls, whose predictions were vindicated in the results recorded in the first round of the elections, Macron should score a crushing victory over Le Pen in the second round. A poll conducted after the announcement of the projected results of the first round on Sunday night gave Macron 62 per cent of the vote in the second round against 38 per cent for Le Pen.

Macron’s achievement in winning the first round of the elections and being virtually certain to win the second with an overwhelming majority of the vote is remarkable in that he heads a personal political party that is without a national structure or any elected representatives and that he was a virtual unknown just a few months ago.

French commentators earlier this year were predicting that the winner of the 2017 presidential elections would be the mainstream right Républicains Party candidate François Fillon, whom it was thought would easily be able to capitalise on the deep unpopularity of the mainstream left Socialist Party and the overall fragmentation of the political scene.

However, this was before a series of allegations damaged Fillon’s campaign, leaving the way open to what at first were dismissed as maverick candidates to make startling gains at the expense both of the divided and discredited Socialist Party, the present party of government in France, and the opposition Républicains.

Macron, a short-lived minister of finance in the Socialist Party government of present French President François Hollande, set up a personal political party unaffiliated with either the traditional mainstream left or mainstream right of French politics and began to make significant gains at the expense of both his right-wing and left-wing competitors.

While the other maverick candidate in this year’s elections, the extreme-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also heading a personal political party, was eliminated on Sunday’s first-round vote, Macron has pulled off the remarkable achievement of going through to the second round and being tipped to win despite having no easily identifiable political base, no experience of party politics, and no mainstream party backing.

While it looked for a time as if Fillon would be able to mobilise the traditional right-wing vote in support of his campaign, it seems that his efforts were not sufficient to overcome the distrust of what should have been a constituency large enough to see him comfortably through at least to the second round.

“Any other right-wing candidate besides Fillon would have gone through to the second round,” one disgruntled Républicains voter told Al-Ahram Weekly after the results were announced. “Had it not been for Fillon’s failure there would have been no Macron.”

Now that the results of the first round of the elections are in, the process of digesting their significance begins.

While Hamon and Fillon have both urged their supporters to vote for Macron on the second round, followed on Monday by outgoing President Hollande, this was not immediately true of Mélenchon, and it is possible that some of his voters may now jump ship in favour of Le Pen given the positioning of both candidates as anti-system outsiders.

Nevertheless, even with some of the supporters of the defeated candidates possibly migrating towards Le Pen rather than Macron on the second round, the overall result is probably not in doubt, given the history and character of the French Front National.

There may be a danger of another sort in assuming that Macron’s victory is now assured, according to Le Monde in its editorial on the first-round results on Monday.

While the results were not in themselves surprising, the newspaper said, as they had been more or less predicted for weeks by the opinion polls, a win for Macron in May’s second round of voting could not necessarily be guaranteed in advance.

“Playing down the Front National result in the elections should not lead to complacency regarding the significance of the wound that has been inflicted on the nation,” Le Monde said.

“For the first time ever the Front National has gained more than 20 per cent of the vote in a presidential election in France, its candidate receiving some 7.6 million votes, more than 2.8 million more than Jean-Marie Le Pen received in the first round of the 2002 elections.”

“For the second time in 15 years a nationalistic and xenophobic party manipulated by a cynical and affairiste clan has struck a blow at our political system,” Le Monde said. “This result must be met with an absolute refusal, about which there must be not the slightest ambiguity… [since] the Front National is incompatible with our [French] values, our history and our identity.”

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