Historic French election upheaval sets up second round clash over EU

Supporters celebrate as French presidential election candidate for the 'En Marche!' political movement, Emmanuel Macron (not in picture) finishes in first position of the first round of the French presidential elections in Paris, France, 23 April 2017. [Yoan Valat/EPA]

The first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday (23 April) reduced the traditional political parties to insignificance, in a vote that exposed the country’s deep social divisions and set up a second round clash over the EU. EURACTIV France reports.

“It was a fight we couldn’t lose and it ended in a miserable fiasco.” Republican politician Jean-François Copé summed up how many of his party’s supporters felt about the first round of the presidential election.

For months, the right-wing party had expected to sweep to power, counting on the usual right-left rotation of the presidency, a transition that was expected to be hastened given Socialist President François Hollande’s feeble ratings.

But the campaign split the right into two camps. Many in the Republican party condemned François Fillon’s decision not to pull out despite being placed under legal investigation over fraud allegations. The other half stood behind their candidate, instead questioning the independence of France’s judicial system.

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Double failure

Meanwhile, the first-round results left France’s other traditional political force, the Socialist Party, beaten and bloodied. Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon’s first-round showing of 6.06% beat Gaullist independent Nicolas Dupont-Aignan by a mere two points.

Green MEP Yannick Jadot, who joined forces with Hamon during the campaign, said it was “a very harsh result”.

The last-minute rise of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon appears to have come largely at the expense of the centre-left Socialists. Towards the end of the campaign, the leader of La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) managed to rally many traditional socialist voters who were left unconvinced by Hamon’s candidacy.

But the implosion of the traditional parties is in no small part down to the emergence of En Marche, a ‘movement’ created by Emmanuel Macron exactly one year ago while he was still serving as economy minister in former Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ government.

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Offering innovative political marketing, free online sign-up, a rejection of the traditional two-party system and a chance for supporters to have a say in the political programme, the movement quickly rendered the old model of party membership obsolete. The success of En Marche is also the success of one man, who in a single year achieved what would normally take a lifetime.

Second round will split France in two

“In one year we have changed the face of French politics,” Macron said on Sunday night. The pro-European candidate added that he would be “the president of patriots to confront the threat of nationalists”.

“Our challenge is to help everyone find their place, in France and in Europe,” he insisted.

According to the polls, the second round of voting on 7 May should hand Macron a comfortable 62%-38% victory over extreme-right rival Marine Le Pen. The markets responded well to news of his performance, with the euro climbing against the dollar on Sunday evening.

But nothing can be taken for granted. The debate between the two candidates will centre on the EU, which experience shows to be dangerous territory.

The gulf separating the two candidates mirrors the social divide in France; a divide similar to that which split the UK during the Brexit referendum.

The least educated citizens, who feel left behind by globalisation and are worried about immigration, are most likely to vote for Le Pen, while the better-off, better-educated urban voters will turn to Macron. But the rising star of French politics will have to broaden his appeal beyond the cities if he is to win in a vote where the abstention rate looks set to be high and could therefore be the determining factor in electing France’s new president.

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