The independent liberal Macron looks set to emerge as the victor in the first round of the French presidential election, overtaking the far-right populist Front National candidate Le Pen by a margin of about two percentage points. Based on initial projections, Macron has polled almost 24% of votes, and Le Pen nearly 22%. Conversely, the Republican candidate Fillon who still looked like the frontrunner at the beginning of the year, failed to get through to the second round. Allegations of fraudulent payments of public funds to family members have undermined his election campaign and ultimately proved too much for many French voters. The left-wing populist Mélenchon, who enjoyed a massive surge of support in recent weeks, did not make any further gains at the crucial moment, and thus also failed to deliver a surprise result. Consequently, there will be no run-off between two radically opposed candidates, which would have sent shock waves through France and probably the whole of Europe.
Despite a tense election campaign to the last, and a close outcome, the two favourites – Le Pen and Macron – who were always regarded by pollsters as the likely finalists – have prevailed. However, it remained unclear until recently whether Macron or Le Pen would be the overall winner of the first round, thus securing a psychological advantage in the run-off. While Le Pen had long been regarded as certain to win the first ballot, the latest polls signalled a slight advantage for Macron. However, it was unclear whether, and to what extent last Thursday’s terrorist attack would influence voting behaviour. While the economy and social policy had long been the main focus of the election campaign, national security suddenly shifted centre stage. Le Pen attempted to score points with specific, but radical demands for border controls and the expulsion of suspected terrorists. However, she obviously failed to do so to a sufficient extent to overtake Macron again.
One election follows another, and the French will go to the polls again in only two weeks‘ time. While Macron stands for a liberal and pro-Europe France, Le Pen is committed to strongly nationalist policies which include France‘s withdrawal from the Euro. The two candidates could scarcely be more diametrically opposed, underlining the political dissent in the country after years of economic decline. While more than 20 per cent of the French electorate did not vote in the first round, the implications of who occupies the Elysée Palace after 7th May could prompt a higher turnout next time.
Although pollsters expect Macron to secure 60 to 65% of votes, the run-off is not a foregone conclusion. Le Pen will attempt to shift the focus further onto the issue of security policy, in order to keep the vote as open as possible up to the last minute. In the wake of the terrorist attack, the public debate about which personality can ultimately best protect the country from its enemies at home and abroad could intensify further. Le Pen is likely to be particularly keen to present the image of a strong leader of the country. Conversely, Macron will bank on disappointed voters on the left and the centre-right who supported one of the defeated candidates not staying away out of frustration in two weeks‘ time, but voting instead for the liberal candidate in order to block Le Pen. Macron will have to stress the importance of the election outcome for the future of France. Support for Macron would also be boosted if some of the defeated candidates were to recommend voting for him. While the Socialist Hamon and the Republican Fillon already publicly pledged their support for Macron shortly after initial projections of the result, it is doubtful that Mélenchon will follow suit. On the other hand, none of the top candidates are likely to be prepared to support Le Pen.
France thus faces two more tense weeks of electioneering. If the country does ultimately vote for Le Pen, the repercussions would be far-reaching. The political earthquake which has been avoided today would erupt at a later stage. The Grande Nation and the whole of Europe would face an acid test, the consequences of which would be virtually impossible to predict, but would clearly point towards renationalisation. While Le Pen also supports a radical break in close political cooperation with Germany, Macron ultimately speaks for political continuity, and if anything even closer links with Brussels and Berlin. While this position is not always supported even by French moderates, expectations of his economic policy would be particularly high. In contrast to Fillon, Macron does nevertheless not regard himself as a major reformer, but advocates instead smaller, socially acceptable changes. The liberal candidate’s plans are politically less controversial but might not ultimately be sufficient to create the necessary momentum for the French economy. The economic jubilation which would follow a potential victory for Macron would therefore mainly reflect relief that the political catastrophe of a victory for Le Pen had been averted.