May 8, 2017
Kim Willsher and Chris O’Brien
In the end, French voters chose to look outward and not in on themselves after a divisive presidential election that devolved into a bitter clash over two opposing visions for the country and its place in Europe and the world.
Political leaders around the world offered their congratulations to Emmanuel Macron, breathing a sigh of relief that French voters on Sunday overwhelmingly picked a centrist who embraced the European Union and international cooperation over the extreme-right, anti-immigration Marine Le Pen and her National Front party.
In a joyful celebration at the Louvre Museum that drew thousands of dancing and cheering supporters, Macron, 39, pledged to be a president for all of the French and to bind the political wounds that have deeply divided the country.
“Tonight, there is only the reunited people of France,” he said. “The world is watching us. Europe and the world.”
Yet any hope that France might be ready to rally around its youngest-ever president were dashed as opponents across the political system declared loudly their intentions to mount a fierce resistance to Macron’s government.
After swiftly conceding the election, Le Pen said that her National Front was now the primary opposition party in France and called on her supporters to continue to stand up against the establishment.
“I call on all patriots to take part in the decisive political battles that are beginning today,” she said.
The mainstream Socialist and conservative parties that lost badly in this presidential election were already gearing up to try to regain ground in next month’s critical legislative elections.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, the far-left candidate who came in a close fourth during the first round of voting last month, issued a call to his supporters to resist Macron and his reforms as they fight in the next round of elections. And one of the country’s major unions called for nationwide demonstrations Monday, a national holiday in France, to remind Macron that its members’ votes against Le Pen were not a sign of support for his policies.
As political honeymoons go, Macron’s may have ended before the clock struck midnight.
It had been a nail-biting campaign to the end with allegations of “massive and coordinated” hacking of Macron campaign documents to disrupt the vote just hours before the polls opened Sunday, and fears that the opinion polls might once again have gotten it wrong.
When the provisional results came in — 65.1% for Macron, 34.9% for Le Pen — there was an explosion of joy on one side and recrimination on the other.
Once again, the threat of rising populism, xenophobia and fear-mongering over immigration, security, Islam and terrorism had been seen off in Europe — for the moment. Macron may have won the battle, but he will need to secure a parliamentary majority in order to win the war over who gets to govern France.
After naming a prime minister, Macron will assemble what he has described as his administration’s “commando” — 15 ministers to push through his election pledges. But he could be forced to make changes to the lineup if he doesn’t win a convincing majority in the two-round legislative elections on June 11 and June 18 that will decide the 577 members of the National Assembly.
The president-elect has said that his insurgent movement “En Marche!” — or “Onward!” — will field candidates in all constituencies, but it will be starting almost from scratch without a single existing member of Parliament.
The pressure is on. After widespread disappointment in his two predecessors — the outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy — voters expect Macron to live up to his promise to bring a fresh new style to the presidency and real economic and social change.
Sylvain Crepon, a French political analyst and member of the Radical Politics Observatory at the Paris-based Jean-Jaures think tank, said next month’s votes would be complicated for Macron.
“There are lots of uncertainties in the legislative elections, especially as the winner of the presidential election doesn’t even have a party and is insisting lawmakers must not [hold more than one elected position at a time], which concerns 40% of the outgoing members of Parliament,” Crepon said.
There are three possible outcomes. The new president could obtain an outright majority in the National Assembly, giving him the ability to govern as he sees fit. If he does not have a majority in the lower house and is forced to appoint a prime minister from an opposition party, he will be in a situation that the French call “cohabitation,” meaning he can do little.
The third possibility is that “En Marche!” would have the biggest group of lawmakers in the National Assembly, but not a clear majority, giving the new president some room to maneuver, but not a free hand.
The disarray in Hollande’s Socialist Party and Sarkozy’s Republicans following their humiliating rejection by voters in the presidential battle could work in Macron’s favor. However, the center-right Republicans are regrouping and have already produced a list of candidates for all parliamentary seats.
An OpinionWay-SLPV analytics survey last week suggested that Macron could win up to 286 seats in the National Assembly, the center-right parties around 200-210, the National Front 15-25, the Socialists up to 43 and the far-left up to eight seats..
Macron arrived at the celebration outside the Louvre to the strains of “Ode to Joy,” the Beethoven classic and European Union anthem, a symbolic choice.
“What we have done for the last many months has no precedent or equivalent,” he told the cheering crowd. “Everyone said it was not possible, but they didn’t know France.”
In a nod to the nine rivals who lost in the first round, Macron said he was grateful to those who had disagreed with his program but still voted for him in order to “defend the republic against extremism.”
The crowd began booing and whistling when he said he “respected” the feelings of those who had voted for Le Pen “out of anger, disarray and sometimes conviction.”
“No, don’t whistle them,” Macron said. “I will do everything I can in the next five years to ensure there is no reason to vote for extremes.”
Waving a flag outside the Louvre, Vince Andre, a 29-year-old student, said he was delighted with the result.
“Macron is young, and hopefully he will do something for the young in this country,” he said. “We’re fed up with the same old politicians, the same old promises.”
Across at Le Pen’s reception, the atmosphere was more subdued, but not what might be expected following her electoral thrashing. There was more a sense of determination than resignation.
Inside a restaurant tucked inside a wooded park, Le Pen delivered her concession speech to a few hundred supporters and the limited number of journalists who were granted access. She mixed through the adoring crowd, hugging and kissing well-wishers, and later danced the night away to disco music.
Although disappointed, her supporters expressed pride that Le Pen had come so far against a system they consider to be stacked against her.
“We ran against the country’s political system,” said Jean Messiha, an economist at Paris’ Science Po university and a top campaign advisor. “And now the National Front is the primary opposition party in the country.”
Anne Lavernier D’Havernel walked out of the event carrying a blue flower and wearing a smile. Saying the party had “lost the battle, but not the war,” she said the press and political establishment had misrepresented people like herself, who had hosted refugees at her home and respected all races and countries.
Still, the recriminations began minutes after the election results flashed up on television screens.
Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front, blamed his daughter’s advisors for her defeat. Her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, one of the party’s two members of Parliament, said the far-right had failed to get its message across.
Other party members floated the idea in televised interviews that Marechal-Le Pen, who is seen as even more right-wing than her aunt, might replace her as leader.
Le Pen’s defeat was a blow, but not a knockout for Europe’s far-right parties, which have picked up support across the continent as disillusionment with the EU grows and countries struggle to emerge from a long economic crisis that has left many mired in slow growth and high unemployment, while simultaneously dealing with waves of migrants fleeing war and poverty around the world.
In March, Dutch voters scuppered right-wing populist Geert Wilders’ promised “Patriotic Spring” revolution, giving him less than 13% of the vote in legislative elections and delivering a clear victory to his liberal rival, Mark Rutte.
Last December, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party was narrowly defeated in a presidential vote but claimed it was in “pole position” for legislative elections next year. Sweden also holds a general election next year with the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party currently in third place.
Far-right movements have also been picking up public support and making electoral gains in Italy, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany.
Joel Gombin, one of France’s leading experts on the far right, said the National Front, or FN, could increase its representation in Parliament considerably.
“Traditionally the FN doesn’t do so well in legislative elections, but we will see some probable increase following the presidential success,” Gombin said. “I’m not sure it will be anywhere near the 100 MPs the FN announced, but it could be between 15 and 20, and even then it’s 10 times more than the party has at present.”