Brutal battle looms as Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen go into final round of French presidential polls

LONDON - The first-round results of France's presidential election are reassuring for those who feared that extremist politicians are about to sweep to power in Europe.

For although Mrs Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front got 21.53 per cent of the votes and has therefore qualified for the second round of the election, the better performance of Mr Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist candidate who won 23.75 per cent and can rely on a much wider pool of future supporters, should mean that Mrs Le Pen will lose her bid to become France's president when the second and decisive round takes place on May 7.

Still, although all polls consistently show Mr Macron beating Mrs Le Pen by a margin as wide as 20 percentage points in the one-on-one duel which lies ahead, nothing can be taken for granted, since the campaigning over the next two weeks will be both brutal and gruelling.

And regardless of the outcome, the election has already destroyed France's traditional political arrangements.

The key to winning the second round of voting lies in the two candidates' abilities to reach out beyond their traditional constituency of voters.

 

On this score, Mr Macron is likely to fare much better than Mrs Le Pen. Mr Macron, who briefly served as a minister in the outgoing government before he decided to run as an independent, is viewed with great suspicion by his former colleagues.

 

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has already called on "all French democrats" to vote for Mr Macron, who is now seen as the only line of defence against Mrs Le Pen.

And although centre-right voters don't trust Mr Macron either, they are also likely to rally behind his flag.

By comparison, Mrs Le Pen is much more restricted in her ability to persuade voters to switch their allegiance; her abrasive campaigning style and policies, which include a pledge to leave the European Union, abandon the Euro currency and impose serious restrictions on French Muslims are viewed as extreme by a large part of France's voters.

Mrs Le Pen hoped to do better than what opinion polls predicted for her in the first round in order to maintain her electoral momentum. The fact that she failed and her score is precisely that predicted by pollsters does not bode well for her presidential prospects.

However, Mrs Le Pen is a far better campaigner than Mr Macron, who has never served in parliament or run in a national election, and the National Front leader is guaranteed to pull no punches.

Soon after Sunday's ballots were counted, Mrs Le Pen already gave notice that she plans to spend the next two weeks hammering home her message "against mass immigration, the free movement of terrorists or the reign of big money".

She also enjoys another major asset: her supporters are highly committed and disciplined, and are very likely to vote in two weeks' time, while Mr Macron's potential supporters are more disparate and less loyal to their candidate.

Of particular concern for Mr Macron will be how to attract the 19 per cent of the voters who gave their support in the first round to Mr Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left candidate. The danger for Mr Macron is these voters will simply fail to turn out for the second round.

A low turnout will clearly favour Mrs Le Pen; a turnout of not more than 60 per cent of the electorate may well see the National Front leader win. The challenge for Mr Macron is, therefore, not merely to persuade voters that he is the only acceptable presidential candidate, but that they must actually cast their ballots accordingly.  

Either way, Sunday's ballots have already made history: for the first time since the present French constitution was adopted half a century ago, the candidates of both the mainstream left and right in French politics were disqualified from competing in the second round.

Mr Francois Fillon, a former prime minister and the leader of the centre-right Republicans, a party which traces its history to French wartime hero General Charles de Gaulle, attracted only 19.91 per cent of the votes, while Mr Benoit Hamon, the candidate of the Socialists who trace their history back to the 19th century and currently run France, scored a humiliating 6.2 per cent of the ballots.

Overall, therefore, just over a quarter of the French electorate now seems to have any loyalty to the two parties which have ruled the country for many decades. And that means although the eventual election of Mr Macron will reassure France's European neighbours, the reality remains that its entire political system is now melting down.

 

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Correction note: An earlier version of the story stated that Mr Francois Fillon is the leader of the centre-left Republicans. This is incorrect. He is the leader of the centre-right Republicans. We are sorry for the error.