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Relief for France's mainstream

Erin Conroy
May 8, 2017

Centrist Emmanuel Macron was confirmed president-elect in line with opinion poll forecasts. But some voters in France were shaken by the unprecedented support shown for the far right, reports Erin Conroy in Paris.

Frankreich Nach den Präsidentschaftswahlen in Paris
Macron's supporters greeting news of his election winImage: DW/B. Riegert

Voters in Paris showed little surprise that former banker and technocrat Emmanuel Macron won France's presidential election in a run-off vote Sunday against the far-right populist candidate, Marine Le Pen.

Still, many found it disconcerting that the Front National's Le Pen was able to win about 35 percent of the vote - unprecedented support for the party, which has been making steady gains in local and national elections - even as the country's mainstream parties on the right and left backed the independent centrist Macron. Le Pen's share of the vote was nearly double that won by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 election, the only other time that their party made it to the second round.

Re-live the French presidential runoff as it happened

"She did not win, but it still says a lot about the strength of the populist tide in France,” says Alain Leroy, a business manager in Paris. "I think this sends a chill down the backs of many people in the country."

Frankreich Präsident Emmanuel Macron spricht vor dem Louvre in Paris
Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron saluted supporters at the Louvre rallyImage: Reuters/P. Wojazer

Low turnout 

Le Pen benefited from low turnout - at about 75 percent, the lowest since 1969 - and a large number of spoiled or blank ballots - about 8 percent of those cast - as many voters were underwhelmed by the choice after their preferred candidates were eliminated in the first round two weeks ago. The far-left, communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who lost narrowly in the first round, refused to guide his supporters toward Macron or Le Pen.

Frankreich Wahlen
Voters waiting to enter a polling station in northeast Paris. Around 25 percent of the electorate abstained. Image: DW/E. Conroy

Still, Le Pen did not fare as well as expected, says Thomas Vitiello, a political analyst with the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po.

"This turns out to be a big defeat for Marine Le Pen, as she had some really good hopes to reach 40 percent or more of the vote,” Vitiello said. "If you look at the larger picture, it is an improvement for her. With every election, the party is showing a positive electoral dynamic, and maybe she has not lost the war but has lost the battle. But I think a lot of people just did not want to make any big jump with someone they viewed as an unprepared candidate, and an unprepared political party."

Far right tries, and fails, to sway French election

Vicious debate turning point

The tipping point, Sciences Po's Vitiello says, was the vicious presidential debate in the week before the vote which included name-calling, shaken fists and pointed fingers, at times shocking moderators and viewers. Le Pen portrayed Macron as a heartless capitalist, while he repeatedly asked her to stop telling lies and saying "stupid things."

Frankreich Wahlen
Gilles Dorronsoro, a teacher in Paris, says voters may have been swayed by this week's presidential debateImage: DW/E. Conroy

"She came across as very aggressive and incompetent to voters, while he held his ground, and I think that this broke the momentum of her campaign,” Vitiello said.

Gilles Dorronsoro, a teacher in Paris, said earlier Sunday that he believed the debate would hurt Le Pen's chances.

"Marine Le Pen was so violent and ready to use fake news," he said just after casting his ballot. "In the end people were, I think, a bit suspicious about that, and basically I think she's been discredited."

Frankreich Wahl TV-Debatte - Marine Le Pen & Emmanuel Macron
The TV debate in the final days before the voteImage: Getty Images/AFP/E. Feferberg

Leaked emails and interest groups

A massive dump of leaked e-mails from Macron's campaign less than 48 hours before polls opened did not appear to have had a big impact on the election. Just before a deadline in which candidates were banned from making any statements, Macron's team said that fake documents were mixed with papers showing legitimate campaign activities in order to "spread doubt and disinformation." Macron's party has said it has been the victim of repeated hacking during the campaign and has blamed groups backed by the Kremlin in Russia, which supports Le Pen.

Read: French officials warn media not to publish #MacronLeaks

Financial markets were set to gain on the win of the pro-business, pro-European Union candidate. Le Pen had promised an exit from the European Union and the eurozone during her campaign, although at times she backed away from those statements due to wavering support from the electorate on those issues.

Legislative elections in June

But Macron, who has never held an elected post, has a long road ahead. His newly-formed En Marche! party is expected to struggle to get enough representatives elected in June parliamentary elections. Without a majority in the National Assembly, it will be difficult for Macron to act on his reform proposals.

Read: Macron set to lead France as youngest ever president

Leila Amzoug, a banker in Paris, says the French electorate could very likely rally behind him.

"It is good that we will now have a young face and a new vision,” she said. "Maybe it will be difficult for him at times, because his party is so young, but the people know that it will be best not to paralyze the French government. This election had put France at a crossroads, but people know now the direction we need to follow."

Others were not as optimistic.

"It's good that we avoided five years with Le Pen, but still there is a lot of work ahead,” said Alexandre Martin, a sales manager. "This will not be easy for Macron, as clearly he was elected because people did not want the Front National to run the country. My fear is that he is going to have a lot of pressure on his shoulders, and mainly all the other political parties will fight against his every decision.”