Analysis: France is now in uncharted territory and the journey is just beginning

France moved into new territory on Sunday by voting for Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron to face each other in a second round duel in two weeks time, when more history will be made. Professor Paul Smith says it's only the first stage of a new journey.

Analysis: France is now in uncharted territory and the journey is just beginning
Photo: AFP

In the end, the sun came out and the French, despite the predictions, turned out in good numbers (around 77%) to vote in the first round of the presidential election. What is more, they voted into first place, not Marine Le Pen, but Emmanuel Macron, by around 24% to a shade under 22% (at the time of writing the final scores have not been announced).

For Le Pen, there has been no Trump effect, but rather a Wilders effect: the far-right hasn’t done as well as expected. Le Pen has often complained that opinion polls are inaccurate and misrepresent her score, but not in the way she thought. And suggestions that she might even get as high as 30% (Russian opinion polls?) have proved to be utterly unfounded.

While the 23rd April 2017 will go down as a historic moment for the French far-right, for Le Pen and within the FN, it’s a disappointment.

She wanted to go into the second round in pole position, using that as her platform to denounce ‘the system’ for preventing the ‘real’ voice of the people from being heard, even though she knew that she had little chance of beating either Macron or the right-wing candidate, Francois Fillon. Instead she has herself only seen off Fillon by 2%.

Macron’s achievement is quite something. He has not only won the first round, but also withstood last-minute surges from Fillon and the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon. Both men appeared really to believe they would be in the second round, but then no candidate admits defeat before the fact (except Benoit Hamon, that is).

Throughout the last week of the campaign, the pro-Fillon Le Figaro banged out the message for right-wing voters who might have been thinking of a tactical vote for Macron. But to no real effect. By the end of Sunday evening, Fillon was just under 20% of the vote and Melenchon just over 19%.

Benoit Hamon, the Socialist party candidate, finished a distant fifth, with less than 7%, leaving the party with a major headache in the lead up to June’s general elections.

Do they try to find some sort of alliance with Melenchon? Will he even be looking for that? Or does the PS rally around another figure (maybe prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve) in a broad pro-Macron coalition (if he wins)? On Sunday evening, Melenchon was in no mood to hint at how he envisaged the course of events over the next few weeks.

Hamon was quick to endorse Macron for the second round and Filon followed suit. This matters.

Candidates who are eliminated in the first round do not have to call on their electors to vote for one candidate or another in the second round.

They may even seek to play a waiting game and to cut a deal with one or other of the candidates ahead of the second round. Francois Fillon, to his credit, made an immediate and unequivocal call to his supporters to vote for Macron and against Le Pen.

The gesture was dignified, but also opens the way for dialogue between the Republicans and Macron for the future. Not all right-wingers are entirely happy with Fillon’s rapid declaration – the acting chair of the party, Laurent Wauquiez was reluctant to commit himself – but most of the party’s leading figures have echoed Fillon.

Whether Fillon’s electors will follow suit remains open to doubt. A large part of the Catholic right, those who made up the numbers who appeared in the Place du Trocadero in early March to support Fillon, will find it difficult. Similarly, a large slice of Melenchon’s supporters, who see Macron as one of the primary advocates of the ‘uberisation’ of the French economy, will find Le Pen’s rhetoric more appealing and cast a vote for her to teach ‘les elites’ a lesson, if they vote at all.

Macron still has to win the election on May 7th. The opinion polls that have explored the possibility of a Macron-Le Pen run-off have generally seen this going 60-40 in his favour (as opposed to 55-45 in a Fillon-Le Pen contest).

That would be a good outcome, but of course, Macron will want to limit Le Pen as far as possible, not just to beat her fair and square, but also to afford himself leverage in future negotiations between his own En Marche! movement and the other parties.

We always knew that this election would take France into uncharted political waters. This is only the first stage of the process, but it is a fundamental one.

Paul Smith is an Associate Professor in French and Francophone studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

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Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”