The independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, who is now favourite to win the French presidential election against the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen, spent much of his first day of the final-round campaign behind closed doors, fine-tuning strategy. His triumphant victory speech after topping the first-round vote had given way to discussion across France of the difficult challenge he now faces.
The election map of France was a reality check. Far from an outright victory for Macron’s moderate centrist brand of business-friendly, internationally minded, socially liberal values, it showed a country more fractured than ever. The Front National cemented its place on the French political scene, winning swaths of the deindustrialised north and east, as well as the south, while Macron took the west. He was strong in cosmopolitan cities, while she was strong in small towns and rural areas that felt abandoned.
The anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen took nine of the 10 departements with France’s highest unemployment rates. Macron’s vote was particularly high in the capital, Paris, a thriving island that seemed more than ever cut off from the pessimism of much of the rest of the country that surrounds it.
The results of the first round revealed striking parallels with what the philosopher Raphaël Glucksmann warned were the “real social divides” that had appeared in the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the US. There was a strong message from voters struggling to make ends meet, who felt forgotten and left behind, and an anger towards the traditional political parties, which were booted out of the race.
While Macron topped the poll with 23%, more than 40% of voters chose candidates at the furthest ends of the political spectrum, from the far-right Le Pen to the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Eurosceptic candidates made their strongest gains ever, winning the support of more than 46% of voters.
Macron, 39, is a tech-savvy former senior civil servant who talks about “harnessing the energy” of startups; who smiles at all times and wants to inject some Barack Obama-style “hope” and optimism into France. His platform is progressive and pro-European, economically liberal and socially leftwing on issues such as immigration – he had praised Angela Merkel for her generous policy on asylum seekers that has led to more than a million new arrivals in Germany since 2015.
He is a former investment banker, a millionaire who was appointed as economy minister to a Socialist government and had no political experience before deciding to strike out on his own and found a new movement that was “neither left nor right” to revolutionise the tired old ways of French politics. He calls his policy plans more “pragmatic” than catchy: loosening the strict rules on businesses and lightening corporation tax, streamlining the pensions system, providing unemployment benefits for more people but being stricter by suspending benefits from qualified workers who refuse two “decent” job offers.
He says he can bring a positive outlook to one of the most pessimistic countries in the world, where more than 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past two years and, after decades of mass unemployment, more than 3 million people are without jobs.
But Macron must come out of his comfort zone to show he understands the country’s divisions and can, as his campaign team promised, “reconcile France”. Even if the first final-round poll forecast he would beat Le Pen by 62% to 38%, nothing can be taken for granted in this unpredictable French presidential race.
Politicians on the traditional right and left have already lined up behind Macron in an attempt to prevent Le Pen from winning. But this default vote against Le Pen rather than in favour of Macron is no longer seen as enough to set up a French leader for a successful term in office – the nation did it once, for the rightwing Jacques Chirac against the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, and disappointment and unpopularity dogged Chirac’s time in office.
Le Pen has made no secret of the fact that her ideal final round would be a showdown with Macron. She has already styled herself as the “candidate of the people”, depicting him up as a globalist former banker from the “arrogant elite” where “money is king”, cut off from the everyday experience of voters.
As a political novice, Macron’s first challenge in the next two weeks is to reassure voters that he could actually govern the country. If he is elected president, he will need a parliamentary majority in order to carry out his policies. Without that majority in the 577-seat parliament, he would be relegated to a symbolic head of state, hosting state dinners but with his hands tied.
His fledgling political movement, En Marche, is barely one year old. He has to prove that it can run candidates in the parliamentary elections in June and win enough seats, or else France would be left in a murky hinterland of coalition politics. Le Pen would face the same problem: she currently has only two members of parliament and without a majority would not be able to put any of her policies into place.
Macron’s first gaffe was to be photographed holding a celebration party at a Paris brasserie on the night of the first round. It wasn’t only that it sparked comparisons to the unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy’s celebrations at a luxury restaurant in 2007 – Macron argued that his party was much cheaper. It was that a celebration was taking place at all after the first round and before the whole election was over. “This party at La Rotunde is shameful in a political situation when the far right is qualified for the second round,” tweeted David Cormand, the head of France’s Green party.
To look as if the race was already run was seen as a dangerous thing in the current political climate. “We need to be humble,” said Richard Ferrand, the secretary general of En Marche. “The election hasn’t been won and we need to bring people together to win.”