There we have it. It’s been a tense election of sharp rhetoric, and discourse pondering the future of France. But the second round of voting came and went today. And France has a new President.
Emmanuel Macron – the pro-EU, social liberal-won with a decisive victory over the far-right Marine Le Pen that his supporters hailed as holding back the tide of populism.
Macron, who at 39 becomes the youngest French President since Bonaparte, is a former economy minister who ran as a “neither left nor right” independent. He promise to shake up the French political system, and took 65.1% of the vote to Le Pen’s 34.9%, according to initial projections from early counts. It is a stronger-than-expected victory, and a stunning achievement for a novice to electoral politics – Macron has never been elected to public office before.
The size of the victory margin however does not disguise the fact a section of the French electorate felt disenchantment. Pollsters said between 25%-26% of voters stayed away, meaning turnout at its lowest level for the second round of a French Presidential election since 1969. Among those who did vote, some 12% submitted a blank or other invalid ballot, indicating they did not support either candidate.
Yet the far-right can also take some comfort in its best electoral showing in French history. Although Le Pen fell well short of the presidency, her score is roughly double what her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, got in the second round in 2002. No doubt the anti-immigration, anti-EU Front National’s supporters will claim that on the back of this performance, the party has a central place as an opposition force in France.
Not too much comfort, however. This win also marks the third consecutive setback for European populist parties who preached a mix of Trump-style nationalism and protectionism to voters fed up with conventional politics. Austria saw pro-European Green Alexander Van der Bellen defeat far-right Norbert Hofer in the country’s Presidental election. To the Netherlands, which saw sitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) see off far-right Party for Freedom (PVV). France today ultimately decided to opt for politics of hope over hate.
Of course, there are challenges on the horizon. The next test for Macron and Le Pen — as well as the mainstream parties who for the first time failed to get a candidate through to the second round of a Presidential election — is next month’s Parliamentary election. Its outcome will determine whether Macron can translate his strong mandate into enough seats in the National Assembly, and a governing mandate to run France. Macron will have to remember that some of his voters today came from other parties across the political spectrum and turned out not in complete support of his programme, but to stop the Front National.
To win next month’s Parliamentary elections, Macron will have to defy political tradition once more. His own political movement, En Marche, was formed just last year and this will be the first time it has fielded Parliamentary candidates. And, even if Macron wins enough seats in Parliament to lead the government, he will face resistance from unions, a hostile left, and the far-right to his proposed economic reforms.
Challenges and battles lie ahead. Yet tomorrow will seem a little brighter after this result. The far-right once more could not achieve their objectives. Across Europe, the far-right, with its policies of fear and division, did not prevail.
And it will not prevail.