Not, perhaps, the best of results for France and Europe, but by no means the worst either. The far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, appears not to have topped the first-round poll, as some had hoped and many others had feared, but she does appear to have taken second place, which takes her into the run-off in two weeks’ time. There, she will face Emmanuel Macron, of the movement, En Marche, which he founded as a vehicle for his presidential run. Macron came first with an estimated 23.7 per cent of the vote; Le Pen took an estimated 21.9.
Looking ahead to 7 May, the likelihood is that the conventional left, right and centre join forces to oppose Le Pen, and Macron is swept to the Elysee Palace, without any formal party to back him, at the tender age of 39. Marine Le Pen thus faces a similar fate to the one that befell her father, after he unexpectedly pipped the Socialist, Lionel Jospin, to reach the run-off in 2002. Jacques Chirac, until then an unpopular incumbent, easily clinched a second term thanks to an electorate shocked by the first-round result.
In fact, for all her attempts to modernise and detoxify her party, Marine Le Pen received only a couple of percentage points more than her father before her – which suggests that the far-right constituency in France remains circumscribed, at less than 25 per cent of those who turn out to vote. The pattern in the Netherlands general election earlier this year, where a sharp increase in the far-right vote had also been widely expected, was similar.
In many ways, this result simplifies the second-round choice for French voters. Had the populist left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, made the cut to face Le Pen, moderates of whatever persuasion, would have been faced with a devil’s choice. That might have given Le Pen the best prospects of the presidency, if a majority regarded Melenchon’s brand of leftism as the greater of two evils.
As it is, Le Pen faces the mainstream candidate who represents the starkest alternative to her own positions. Macron campaigned on a passionately pro-Europe platform. He is a centrist, with a bias to the free market, while being progressive on social policy. This is a combination that France’s traditional parties have been unable to embrace, which left them looking hidebound and impossible to reform.
And it made Macron at once the modern and the anti-establishment candidate. Could there be a danger that, with all the endorsements from establishment figures – which had started to crowd in even before his victory – Macron loses this particular selling point? Of course, but there is ‘establishment’ and ‘establishment’, and some ballast from traditionalists could also be an advantage when the opponent is Marine Le Pen.
It should also be noted, perhaps, that whatever the effect of the terrorist attack on the Champs-Elysees just three days before the election, it was not enough to hand Le Pen first place, for all that security had been a feature of her campaign. The conclusion must be that either it had little effect or that it gave her second place, where she might otherwise have come third. What it did not do – to the credit of French voters, who turned out in as great a number as five years ago – was keep voters at home or distort the vote to any significant extent.
The presidency is now Emmanuel Macron’s to lose. If he does win on 7 May (and it still has to be an if, though less of an if than it seemed 24 hours earlier) this could have several unanticipated – and beneficial – effects. It could presage a complete restructuring of French politics and bring the country’s awkwardly old-fashioned politics into the modern age. It would be a change of the sort that has been spoken of here in the UK, following the referendum last year, but will not be achieved before the next election.
After the first-round results became clear this evening, it was the demise of the old left and right political parties, as represented by the outgoing Socialist President, Francois Hollande, and the Republican, Francois Fillon, that became a dominant theme. One of the striking aspects of the early stages of this French election was how many would-be candidates had been in the upper echelons of French politics for two decades or more. A Macron presidency would represent a new start.
What he might do with that power is a different matter. The actual power of a French president can be exaggerated. The constraints on his – so far still his – power are not as institutionalised as they are in the United States, but the National Assembly, which faces re-election in June, curbs his freedom to act. At the same time, the President appoints the government – the prime minister is a far lesser figure than in the UK – and, almost more important, he sets the tone for the nation. The image of a bright, young President of France will revive the country’s image of itself, but also make an immediate mark on the international map.
For France to have a president who not only projects a modern, progressive, image, but argues as an ardent pro-European, would be excellent news for the European Union, at a time when it faces pressure not only from Brexit, but from a growing scepticism among some of the erstwhile enthusiastic “new” Europeans.
Macron, though, will have to present his European case over the next two weeks, against the anti-federalist arguments forcefully put forward by Le Pen. The question then is how many additional votes Le Pen might be able to pick up from those French voters for whom disenchantment with the EU is more compelling than their possible distaste for other aspects of the National Front.