Presidential vote highlights France divide

Thibauld MALTERRE, Joshua MELVIN
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French far-right leader Marine Le Pen

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who scored her best results in Sunday's presidential vote far from France's biggest cities, was carried to the run-off election by a part of the nation left behind in an era of globalisation.

The results reflect the cleaving of France into two nations: cities reaping the benefits of global links on one side, and small towns and rural areas far from the busiest hubs of employment on the other.

It is these regions -- marked by de-industrialisation, lack of jobs and the fear of a falling standard of living -- that helped propel the National Front (FN) leader into the May 7 runoff against pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron.

She won 28 percent of votes in her party's traditional bastion of the southeast and also did well in France's rust belt -- scooping up 31 percent of votes in the northeast and 28 percent in the east.

Elsewhere, she picked up support from those struggling to make ends meet.

"The current system is rotten," Le Pen voter Stephane Back, a 47-year-old wigmaker who works three jobs, told AFP in the Paris region.

"I think that humanity must go through explosive moments to re-set the clock. Things become institutionalised and then you have to shake them up."

Le Pen positioned herself as a staunch defender of France's interests, with plans to restore national borders, pull out of the eurozone and hold a referendum on leaving the EU.

"The major issue of this election is runaway globalisation, which is putting our civilisation in danger," she told supporters after qualifying with 21.5 percent of the votes, or nearly eight million ballots.

Le Pen's support drastically drops in large cities such as Paris and Lyon, where she scored five and eight percent. Those are the places where Macron scooped up nearly a third of the ballots on his way to pulling in 23.75 percent of the vote.

- 'The divide' -

"Macron-Le Pen: The two Frances" said the headline of Monday's Le Monde daily, in which "two nations confront one another, the rural areas that went overwhelmingly for Marine Le Pen and the cities that backed Emmanuel Macron."

Voters who backed the far-right leader feel she alone can put them back on the track to prosperity.

"I think (politicians) don't realise how hard it is to live on middle-class wages," Carine Sayed, 30, a trainee beautician, told AFP.

"If they spent six months making 1,300 euros ($1,400) they would see how hard it is for many French people nowadays."

"They don't know what we're going through," added Sayed, who lives about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Paris in Melun.

Although Le Pen called it "historic", her result was tinged with disappointment after polls in recent months had put her at around 27 percent.

She was hoping to ride a wave of populist, anti-globalisation sentiment that helped sweep Donald Trump to victory in the United States and paved the way for Britain's vote to leave the EU.

"In its new strategy, the National Front is no longer concerned with the right-left divide," said Joel Gombin, one of France's leading experts on the far-right.

"It is exploiting a new dynamic of globalists against patriots, and successfully so, because the second round is a clash of these two ideologies.

However, he noted: "There is nothing to indicate that the FN can win on the basis of this divide."