French voters will chose between wildly different visions for France

With Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen the last two candidates standing in the French election, the mainstream parties have been shunned. Our experts look at the implications.

By Cathy Harper. Election Watch Editor

It was a divisive and unpredictable campaign, but the first round results are now clear.

Today, pro-EU, pro-immigration centrist Emmanuel Macron and anti-EU, anti-immigration far-right candidate Marine Le Pen have both won through to the run-off vote to determine who will become France’s next President.

Macron won approximately 24% of the vote in the first round; Le Pen 21%. Most other votes were shared by Francois Fillon and Jean-Luc Melanchon.

A new political reality

Professor Gabriele Suder, Principal Fellow, Melbourne Business School; French-German International Relations Expert


The results show the electorate’s desire for a contemporary ‘French revolution’ in the political system: Voters have shown that the traditional political parties are not providing the solutions they want and need to current issues of security, economic, geopolitics, welfare, immigration and environmental issues. And they have not for some time.

Conservatives and socialists had been in power for more than 30 years. People’s perception is that they were not able to deliver fruitful outcomes economically. Disillusioned by traditional politics and political scandals, ever increasing over the past three decades, they have turned a path to a new political reality.

Of 47 million French voters, in France and abroad, more than 78% voted in this round, very slightly below participation rates in the elections of 2012.  However, it remains to be seen whether turnout will be high in the second round in two weeks’ time. With the notable exception of the 1969 elections, more French voters cast their ballot in the second round than in the first. It is crucial that this remains the case.

Non-extremist voters might consider that all danger of extremism is over and the case won. It is not. If they don’t commit to voting again in the second round, Le Pen will benefit from their absenteeism because extremist voters are sure to vote.

Supporters of Marine Le Pen

While media are quick to announce that Le Pen’s chances are ‘crushed’, let us remember from contemporary history that no second round of French elections is truly predictable. Yet, I would not expect that Le Pen will win. The electorate will vote ‘against’ her, rather than ‘for’ Macron.

A second danger, though probably less broadly appreciated in the face of looming extremism as the only alternative, is the French voters’ confidence in Macron's ability to lead a program that will depend profoundly on the parliamentary majority that will be determined through elections in June.

Importantly, as result of these elections there will be a constitutional crisis that France is going to face, no matter who of the two candidates will become the next president, he or she will not have a majority in the lower or upper house. Hence none of the candidates will be able to effectively govern as the system currently functions.

The approximate number of French citizens in Australia is 75,000. More than 23,000 of them had registered to vote. They have been numerous and highly committed yesterday, queuing up in the sunshine for hours. Amongst them families with small children, pregnant women, elderly citizens, and others who showed their true commitment to democracy and the privilege that we have to be able to vote – a privilege and power that many peoples in the world envy us all for. The French community in Australia is looking forward to supporting democracy and change again on 7 May.

Passing on the mainstream

Professor Peter McPhee AM, University of Melbourne. Author of Liberty or Death: the French Revolution

This is an historic outcome, with the mainstream party candidates passed over. But it is all the more important, because it now opposes Emmanuel Macron (pro-Europe, liberal on social issues, international in outlook) to Marine Le Pen, who is the opposite. He is everything she loves to target: elite, global in outlook, and a banker.

Macron will win the second round, and deliver a major boost to those who see the future best secured by openness, collaboration and tolerance rather than xenophobia and nostalgia. But he will struggle to do anything about the stagnant economy.

High voter turnout

Maryse Helbert, Lecturer, School of Social and Political Sciences

The dust of months of turmoil and unpredictability has settled as French voters have finally put an end to the uncertainty plaguing the first round of voting for the presidential elections.

The political campaign leading to the elections has been rightly called exceptional for many reasons, and several lessons can be learnt.

First of all, the polls in this case were quite accurate. The recent trend has been that polls no longer provide a good picture of the political landscape. Several newspapers such as Le Monde and Le Figaro ran articles explaining the limits of polls and the dangers of relying on them, and noting particularly the pitfalls of ‘fake polls’ (in the last week of the campaign, several fake polls on social media were predicting Fillon’s victory). Not so here, where the final results of the election reflect the latest opinion polls very closely.

Second, voter turnout has been decent (voting is not compulsory in France). The presidential election is the most popular election in France, and while many feared detachment and lack of interest in the candidates would result in a low turnout at this election, participation has been estimated at 77.3 % (only slightly lower than in 2012, when it was 79.5%). )The long queue along the streets of St Kilda in Melbourne for the polling booths at the Alliance Francaise on Sunday (and waiting times up to several hours) was a good indicator of the eagerness of French citizens in Australia to vote at this election).

Third, last Friday’s terrorist attack appears not to have had the impact some were expecting.  Indeed, during the last days of the campaign, Francois Fillon, of the right-wing Les Republicains party, and Le Pen of the far-right National Front, tried to use this attack to ramp up votes for their parties. However it does not seem to have worked this time given the relatively steady-to-low results for these candidates (Fillon 20% and Le Pen 21.7%).

Fourth, Emmanuel Macron’s qualification to the second round, with the highest score of all candidates (23.9%), is an outstanding victory for him and the En Marche movement, which was created only a year ago and is not affiliated with any traditional political parties. Throughout his campaign, Macron claimed that he was neither from the left nor right, but rather would draw on the best of the both, and govern accordingly. Throughout his campaign he has accumulated the support of political figures from both sides of the political spectrum.

Marine Le Pen casts her vote

Finally, Marine Le Pen has – as expected – qualified for the second round, but hers is a hollow victory. In some ways it is, in itself, a very good result for her. She has achieved a much higher score than her father did in the presidential election of 2002, and has increased her own base by four points. 

While the success of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, came as a complete surprise – and shock – to French politics in the first round of presidential elections in 2002, it is unsurprising that his daughter has done the same. Polls have put Marine Le Pen ahead of all other candidates for over 6 months. What is surprising is that, as Le Monde points out, her result is far from an outstanding one. Indeed it far from what she herself predicted, and from what many of her detractors feared. At 21.7%, she has lagged behind Macron, leaving her in second place for what will now be an extremely difficult final round for her.

Being ahead of the first round would have given her momentum for the second round, given there are several hurdles she must overcome to win that final round and be elected president. Looming largest of these hurdles is the call made – just a few hours after the results were released – by the (unsuccessful) candidates from the major political parties, Fillon and the Socialist Party’s Benoit Hamon – for the French people to vote for Macron over Le Pen.

In a final surprise from this extraordinary campaign, the Socialist Party, one of France’s two ‘major’ parties, has almost entirely collapsed, with candidate Benoit Hamon receiving less than 7% of the vote. Fillon, the candidate for the other major party, has come third, meaning that neither major party will see their president in the Élysée Palace for the next five years.

In Macron and Le Pen, it can be said that two ‘anti-system’ candidates have prevailed.

A lame president?

Paul Soyez, Researcher on French-Australian relations (Paul is a member of En Marche)

The most important outcome of the first round of voting in the presidential election was the death of French traditional parties, the Socialists and the Conservative party.

They will have to deeply reform themselves and unite their discourse if they want to still exist in five years.
The second round opposes two visions of France: one pro-European, optimistic, more privileged and benefiting from globalisation; the other who feels threatened by globalisation, anti-EU, anti-immigration. It might result in a deep political renewal in France.

Macron is likely to win since Fillon and Hamon called on voters to support him, but things are not certain and it will not be a large victory.

If President, Macron's main challenge will be to gather a majority at the Parliament in June with the legislative elections, which will be really hard. So we might have a President unable to govern.

The far-right will remain a significant force in France, and results show that although many French voters still support the EU, they want it to be reformed.

Banner image: En Marche leader Emmanuel Macron. Credit: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images // National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

Image 1: Supporters of National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Imagen 2: Marine Le Pen casts her vote in the first round of the election. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

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