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'A bit of a loss for France'

Erin Conroy Paris
April 24, 2017

Voters in Paris have expressed surprise over the National Front's historic show of support in Sunday's presidential election. Many see the run-off as a shift to the right in the traditionally left-leaning country.

Frankreich Präsidentschaftswahl
Image: Reuters/P. Rossignol

French voters are now bracing for a run-off election between two outsiders, as the country's mainstream parties were eliminated in the first-round presidential vote Sunday.

While many felt the results were to be expected - the polls had long projected independent centrist Emmanuel Macron to face off against the National Front's Marine Le Pen - many were surprised that the two had amassed nearly half of the votes.

"Because this was such an unusual election, any combination would have been a surprise," Thomas Vitiello, a political analyst with the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po, told DW just after the results were revealed.

"Three years ago Macron was unknown to the general public, and just a year after launching his own political movement he is likely to become the youngest-ever president of France," he explained. "For Le Pen, while it may be the smallest surprise of the night given the momentum the Front National has been building, about 23 percent of the vote - around 8 million votes, an increase by a third of her electoral base from five years ago - is a remarkable development in French politics."

Early projections Sunday night suggested that 39-year-old Macron, the ex-banker and former economy minister who looks to reduce cumbersome labor protections and bolster the European Union, had seized about 24 percent of the vote.

Frankreich Präsidentschaftswahl Macron und Le Pen
Centrist Emmanuel Macron will face off against Marine LePen of the right-wing National Front on May 7Image: Reuters/C. Hartmann

'Traditionally socialist country'

Some voters were breathing a sigh of relief as the ‘nightmare scenario' for global financial markets - a run-off election between two anti-EU candidates - was avoided.

The far-left, communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has called for a salary cap and a renegotiating of European Union treaties, and right-wing former prime minister Francois Fillon were both seen as threats in the tight race, which will culminate in a poll between Macron and Le Pen on May 7.

Some voters were pleased that the mainstream parties were eliminated.

"It's a good thing that we will see something new, but I think it's a problem that each year we are seeing more people, now nearly a quarter of the vote, for the Front National," says Alex Dupont, a 31-year-old sales manager living in Paris. "At the same time, I'm a little bit afraid about what Macron wants to do, and whether it is for the country or for big investors, capitalist groups and large companies. It seems he's come from out of nowhere, a new guy that nobody knows much about."

Joel Joubert, 37, a digital marketing and communications specialist who lives just outside of the capital in Boulogne Billancourt, called the results "a bit of a loss for France as a traditionally socialist country."

"It's not a surprise that we are seeing a shift to the right," he said. "Still, voters from the fragmented left will gravitate toward Macron because he is intellectually sound, his policies are seen to be reasonable and his economic plans are not totally devoid of social concerns."

Host of issues

The election has hinged on a wide range of issues including but not limited to immigration, relations with France's Muslim community, foreign policy, the economy, labor protections and whether the country should leave the eurozone and return to the French franc.

French political tradition says that voters should follow their hearts in the first round, and then their heads in the run-off election. In this tight race, however, many voters were torn Sunday between backing the candidate of their choice or taking a more strategic approach to prevent having to choose between unsavory candidates in May.

"For me, the most important thing was the environment and supporting energy transition, and second is the approach to Europe, trying to find a politician who will support the unification of the European Union," said Alexandre Edwardes, who works for a Paris-based environmental agency and decided at the last minute to change his vote. "I think it is very important today when you see the developments around the world."

A shooting on the Champs-Élysées on Thursday, which killed one policeman and was later claimed by the Islamic State armed group, likely influenced voter turnout, says Andre Prigent, a supermarket cashier in north-east Paris.

"It was the final push, for people to wake up and see what is going on and what needs to be done to stop it," he said.

Financial markets will react to the results positively, says Vitiello at Sciences Po.

"Macron was probably the most pro-European of all candidates," he says. "The feeling is that the center-right will vote for him and the left will vote for him. When you look at his manifesto he insists on labor reforms, changes to the pension system and just a very pro-European discourse that puts to rest any worries the markets have had up until now."