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Open Europe's Aarti Shankar analyses the fallout from the first round of the French presidential elections.
24 April 2017
In a historic result, independent centrist, Emmanuel Macron, and Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, have qualified for the second round of the French presidential elections. With 97% of vote counted, Macron is estimated on 23.86% of the vote, and Le Pen 21.43%. French polling called this result impressively accurately, and if they are to be trusted again, we should expect Macron to take the presidency in two weeks’ time, with a decisive 63% of the vote.
This has been a remarkable and historic victory for Emmanuel Macron. In the year since he launched his political movement, En Marche !, he has ascended from a little-known (albeit a former Economy minister) and unlikely candidate, to the anticipated 25th President of the French Republic. His achievement is even more significant given his lack of a formal party machine. If Macron claims victory on 7 May, this will be a historic moment for the French Fifth Republic, marking the first time a political outsider with no party support has taken the presidency.
Macron’s argument that the tradition left-right political divide is obsolete appears vindicated by yesterday’s results. The vote was largely split across four distinct visions, with the classic opposition no longer clear. This result is a resounding defeat for the two traditional parties. The Republicans, who six months ago were facing an un-loseable election, will now be demanding answers from their candidate François Fillon. While his core voter base earned him 19.9% of the vote, it is likely that his scandals cost the party heavily.
The loss for the Socialist party is even more pronounced. Not only is this the second time in fifteen years that they find themselves eliminated in the first round by the Front National, but their candidate, Benoît Hamon, came in fifth with only 6.35% of the vote. This is the lowest score the party has ever achieved since it was founded in 1969. Indeed, his performance was only marginally better than fringe candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who received 4.7% of the vote. While the public’s intense dissatisfaction with the current Socialist government meant Hamon was never expected to make it to the Elysée, a defeat this momentous might even spell the end of the current Socialist party.
The Front National, on the other hand, will have significant reason to celebrate after making it to the final round once again. Yet there are those who suggest that being beaten to second place represents a blow for Marine Le Pen. This would be to misunderstand the strength of support that her party is experiencing. She has significantly improved on the party’s previous first-round triumph in 2002, both in terms of vote-share and ballot numbers. More importantly, she has surpassed all previous election performances to gain a record 7.7 million ballots. This is around 700,000 more votes than her previous personal best in the 2015 regional elections. That said, this is still unlikely to be enough for her to present a real threat in the second round – in 2012, François Hollande needed 18 million votes to be named president.
Yet, despite the likelihood of a Macron victory in two weeks, Eurosceptism in France will remain a concern to the EU for some time to come. First, almost half the votes in the first round went to Eurosceptic candidates, with the two main examples – Marine Le Pen and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon – accounting for 41% alone. By comparison, Macron, who arguable projected the only firmly pro-European perspective, claimed less than a quarter of the vote. However, a President Macron is also unlikely to be an easy ride for the EU. As we have argued before, Macron’s plan to introduce a Eurozone budget and Eurozone finance ministers requires EU treaty change – and will therefore mean convincing Germany, who has previously opposed a common financing structure. At a time when the EU is fiercely protecting its unity, tension in the Franco-German relationship would be unwelcome.
For now, the French public will go to the polls again in two weeks’ time to finally decide their President. Given first round knock-outs Fillon and Hamon have rallied around Macron, there should be little obstacle to his path to the Elysée. But this is not the hard part for him. As we have said before, the real hurdle comes in June, when he must attempt to field a majority in French parliamentary elections. To increase his chances, he may aim to capitalise on the collapse of the traditional parties, and encourage some of their parliamentary candidates to stand under his En Marche! umbrella instead. This strategy, together with the natural momentum following a candidate’s presidential win, may help him establish a wider parliamentary support base. But if he is unable to gain majority support, he risks being politically paralysed for five years.