What to make of Macron - he who won the most votes (24%) in the first round - and, if he does win, would become the youngest French leader since Napoleon. The current President Hollande’s one time economic minister; a former investment banker, his ‘En Marche’ campaign has harnessed huge amounts of popular support in less than a year. The fact that he has never been elected, does not seem to have worried voters who are disillusioned with the current political settlement.
The fact that he is unconnected to the political establishment, means he has appealed to some voters who might be tempted by ‘outsider’ figures like Le Pen, or Mélenchon, but who are deterred by their extremism. Macron has managed also to capitalise on the fact that he has some experience of the wider world – and in government if not in politics - having earlier undertaken fairly stable roles as a banker and a civil servant. This, and the fact that he is himself an outsider ‘untainted’ by the traditional party political structure.
It is a move towards the unknown, but the fact that he pledges a centrist position makes it entirely less alarming. His social policies are closer to those shared by Hamon and Mélenchon; he has argued that Muslims have been unfairly singled out in French security policies, decried France’s colonial history and argued vociferously to make the environment a priority. Wedded to this is an economic liberalism designed to encourage business to thrive. The centrist position that he takes has made it easier for politicians from both sides, be they Fillon, or from the PS (‘though not yet Mélenchon), to advocate to their supporters to vote for Macron, in the second and final round against Marine Le Pen.
Macron was ebullient with the scent of victory on Sunday night (with many observers noting that his speech had the tone of a second round victory), but it would be unwise to identify him now as the winner, despite his 2.3% lead. It cannot be guaranteed that those who voted for Mélenchon will come out in favour of Macron, nor can it be guaranteed that voters do not instead choose to spoil their ballots. There are even suspicions and fears, that those who voted Mélenchon in protest against the political establishment, might direct their vote towards Le Pen in the second round, particularly those who share her animus against the EU. But at this point and for two weeks, speculation is everything.
What is certain is that Marine Le Pen is delighted with the result - 7.7 million people voted for the FN - the most ever, yet coming second meant that assumptions that she would lead at the First round stage, were dashed. Her attempts to detoxify her father’s brand have proved somewhat successful – ‘though when the vote is analysed, it can be seen that she has performed well in those areas in which it was expected. The FN’s supporters tend to be from impoverished regions of France where workers struggle, where poverty is high and disillusionment with the EU, and with globalisation, are rife. A breakdown of voting statistics, show that Le Pen scored highly among workers (36%), who showed less support for Macron at 17%. Executives preferred Macron, with 34% of them voting for the ‘En Marche’ candidate.
Macron has won the votes of the towns, whereas Le Pen those of the rural areas. In Paris, Le Pen finished last. In Bordeaux, Nantes and Strasbourg, Macron performed well. The disadvantaged North East (once a hub of mining and industry) voted for Le Pen and the south west too. There are also clear lines to be drawn on educational bases - 30% of voters with university degrees voted for Macron, whereas Marine Le Pen won 30% of the vote among those who did not finish secondary schooling.
Reasons to fear a FN Presidency are legion and require little explanation. Le Pen is an Islamaphobe who practices demagoguery and has scapegoated immigrants as the reason for all of France’s economic woes. In terms of international relations, a Le Pen victory would be a boon for Russia - and a disaster for the EU; a reconfiguration of Europe would then most likely take place. Whilst Brexit has certainly ‘knocked the union for six’, Britain had always remained at a certain distance. The departure of France, one of its keystones, would be a body blow.
The next two weeks will see the two candidates enter into the final stage of the campaign. In such a volatile period, it cannot be ruled out that ‘an event’ may occur (Le Pen thrives off acts of terrorism), that could change the direction of the second round. Reports have emerged in the past few days that
Russia (who has provided funds to the Kremlin-friendly FN), has attempted to interfere in the course of the election through hacking. It seems however, for now, that there are reasons to be hopeful that Macron will maintain his lead and will become President.
What is certain is that this round has signalled a disillusionment with the bipartisan system - the model which has dominated French politics since the 1970’s. It is too early to say at this stage whether their demise is in fact a death rattle. There will be parliamentary elections in June which will also indicate their status. The situation for the socialists particularly, is undeniably precarious.