The first round of the French presidential election delivered historic results on Sunday, with neither of the two mainstream parties qualified for the second round. Centrist Emmanuel Macron, a former Minister in President Hollande’s government, came on top with nearly 24% of the vote. He was followed by National Front Leader Marine Le Pen with 21.5%. This leaves centre-right Republican candidate François Fillon on third place, almost neck and neck with far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The socialist Benoît Hamon only made it to a distant fifth place.
This outcome will give voters a feeling of déjà vu from the 2002 presidential election, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and predecessor as leader of the National Front faced centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac in the second round. This time both the centre-right and centre-left establishment parties were wiped out while support soared throughout the campaign for Hollande’s former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. The 39-year-old founded his own movement ‘En Marche’ and is on course to becoming the youngest ever and first outsider to be elected as President of the French Republic. This could complicate matters when it comes to the parliamentary elections, held shortly after, as Macron is unlikely to win a majority in the National Assembly.
His supporters would be wise however not to underestimate Marine Le Pen in the run-up to the second round. Her party’s popularity is at a historical high and scores particularly well with young people aged 18 to 24, in contrast to other populist parties across Europe which tend to reflect the views of older demographics. The ‘anyone but Le Pen’ message will also be less effective this time around due to the breakdown of the remaining 55% of votes.
Despite François Fillon’s call to vote for Emmanuel Macron, his electorate could very well split three ways between those who will follow his instructions, those on the right who sympathise with the National Front and those who will plainly abstain. It will be interesting to see which way Mr Mélenchon’s voters go, who refrained from backing either of the finalists. The Eurosceptic far-left candidate knows very well that although his supporters despise the far-right, Marine Le Pen is their only option for a referendum on the Euro. To them, Macron represents the continuity of the establishment order and his enthusiasm for the European Union is enough to put them off.
Far from his 19% but still potentially significant is France Arise candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, with just under 5%, who also refused to publicly declare his support for either Macron or Le Pen. As a Eurosceptic, his share of voters will likely favour the National Front, as will that of François Asselineau from the sovereigntist Popular Republican Union (UPR). The various workers’ parties are just as unlikely to support Macron.
All polls so far indicate that the centrist form ‘En Marche’ will win come May 7 but the National Front has reason enough to hope for a dramatic turn around, should eurosceptics rally behind Le Pen. Her stance on national identity and immigration furthermore appeals to a chunk of the centre-right, who will be inclined to reject what they see as another five years of socialist government.
In a bid to rise above partisan politics and unite the nation behind her, Marine Le Pen announced last night that she was stepping down as president of the National Front. The debate between the two frontrunners is scheduled to take place on May 3.