- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
In a surprise twist, the polls were basically right.
The French presidential election now boils down to a contest between Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year old former banker, pro-EU candidate who borrowed from left and right to create his own En Marche (Forward) party, and Marine Le Pen, the populist nationalist who defenestrated her father to take over the far-right National Front.
Sunday evening local time, with 87 percent of votes counted, the French Interior Ministry said Le Pen received 22.27 percent of the vote while Macron received 23.43 percent. That was broadly in line with early projections — but was also a sharp repudiation of establishment parties. Both the center-right Republican candidate and Socialist candidate who finished out of the running threw their support behind Macron.
An Ipsos poll of the second round of the French elections has Macron winning 62 percent against Le Pen’s 38 percent.
In a divide that mirrors what has happened in the United Kingdom and the United States, the opposing candidates represent not just different parties but clashing worldviews. Le Pen wants to leave the European Union and pushes protectionist policies, when not denying France’s role in the Holocaust; Macron defends Europe, and wants France to be more engaged with the world, not less (much to the delight of Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, who tweeted that the outcome shows “France and Europe can win together!”).
“We have here, one the one hand, the French who are confident in the future, who are optimistic, who want economic openness,” said Alessia Lefebure, a French politics expert at Columbia University. “On the other side … it’s the French who are scared about the future,” and who are nostalgic for what they imagine was the security and certainty of a bygone era.
Le Pen, whose result Sunday was the best ever for the National Front in a presidential election, tried to polish some of her party’s shabbier edges during the campaign, but has not shied from her core message, which is that “civilization” is under siege.
“Globalization puts our civilization at risk,” Le Pen said in her Sunday victory speech.
Macron, in his speech, struck the opposite tone. “I will be the voice of hope and optimism, for our country’s future and for Europe,” Macron said.
For the second round of voting, scheduled for May 7, Macron seems well positioned to win, given his ability to pull support from both sides of the center. But some experts were leery of counting Le Pen out.
In Le Pen, Macron has “a very formidable and very dangerous opponent,” Irene Finel-Honigman of Columbia University said “She’s almost like a cornered animal, and she’ll stop at nothing.”
But while her nationalistic, far-right platform may be appealing to some, her economic policy, Finel-Honigman explained, “is largely incoherent.” That could create an opportunity for Macron — if he can articulate an argument that a retreat from the global economy would be even worse for workers who feel like they’ve been left behind. What’s more, he’ll have to do it without the machinery of a big national party: His movement was formed just a year ago.
Missing from the next round will be the mainstream traditional parties that have dominated decades of French politics. French voters are still politically engaged, with turnout in the afternoon at 69 percent, but they are tired of traditional politicians, eschewing both the the center-right Republicans and center-left Socialists. (Current president Francois Hollande, with single-digit approval ratings, didn’t even compete.)
The traditional left and right dichotomy doesn’t work anymore, Lefebure said. Citizens “don’t recognize themselves in the parties.”
The proof of that is the fate of those who ran for the traditional parties. Some projections had François Fillon, who, mere months ago, was assumed to be the next president of France, performing only slightly better than Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who surged in the weeks leading up to the first round. (That Fillon spent his campaign under a cloud of fraud charges for misusing French funds to pay his family one million euros didn’t make the strongest appeal.) And the Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, managed to get only 6.5 percent of the vote, per projections.
Now eyes and ears will turn toward the other candidates, as French voters watch and listen for how they encourage their voters to go. On Sunday, Fillon and Hamon announced they would head to the polls on May 7 to vote for Macron. Both had strong words for the threat that the National Front poses to France. Fillon said the far right needed to be stopped. Hamon took things a step further, saying there’s a difference between “a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic.”
But, then, if Sunday’s elections showed one thing, it is that the call of mainstream parties isn’t heard as loudly as it once was. Mélenchon, whom Finel-Honigman likened to a French Bernie Sanders, received 18.69 percent. He questioned the election projections and did not endorse Macron, saying instead that the French must vote their “consciences.”
And so a larger question still looms: Will Mélenchon’s voters, who, like Le Pen’s, are upset and worried about France’s future, turn out for Macron? Or will they send their extreme left votes over to the the extreme right and vote for Le Pen, or just stay home?
France, Europe, and the world will wait two weeks for the answer.
This post was updated to include more complete results from the Ministry of the Interior.
Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images