Macron wins French presidency, to sighs of relief in Europe

May 8, 2017 Europe , News , OPINION/NEWS

Benoit Tessier

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

 

By

Mathieu Rosemain and Matthias Blamont

Emmanuel Macron was elected French president on Sunday with a business-friendly vision of European integration, defeating Marine Le Pen, a far-right nationalist who threatened to take France out of the European Union.

The centrist’s emphatic victory, which also smashed the dominance of France’s mainstream parties, will bring huge relief to European allies who had feared another populist upheaval to follow Britain’s vote to quit the EU and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.

With virtually all votes counted, Macron had topped 66 percent against just under 34 percent for Le Pen – a gap wider than the 20 or so percentage points that pre-election surveys had suggested.

Even so, it was a record performance for the National Front, a party whose anti-immigrant policies once made it a pariah, and underlined the scale of the divisions that Macron must now try to heal.

After winning the first round two weeks ago, Macron had been accused of behaving as if he was already president. On Sunday night, with victory finally sealed, he was much more solemn.

“I know the divisions in our nation, which have led some to vote for the extremes. I respect them,” Macron said in an address at his campaign headquarters, shown live on television.

“I know the anger, the anxiety, the doubts that very many of you have also expressed. It’s my responsibility to hear them,” he said. “I will work to recreate the link between Europe and its peoples, between Europe and citizens.”

Later he strode alone almost grimly through the courtyard of the Louvre Palace in central Paris to the strains of the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, not breaking into a smile until he mounted the stage of his victory rally to the cheers of his partying supporters.

His immediate challenge will be to secure a majority in next month’s parliamentary election for a political movement that is barely a year old, rebranded as La Republique En Marche (“Onward the Republic”), in order to implement his programme.

 

 

EUROPE DEFENDED

 

Outgoing president Francois Hollande, who brought Macron into politics, said the result “confirms that a very large majority of our fellow citizens wanted to unite around the values of the Republic and show their attachment to the European Union”.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, told Macron: “I am delighted that the ideas you defended of a strong and progressive Europe, which protects all its citizens, will be those that you will carry into your presidency.”

Macron spoke by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he hopes to revitalise the Franco-German axis at the heart of the EU, saying he planned to visit Berlin shortly.

Trump tweeted his congratulations on Macron’s “big win”, saying he looked forward to working with him. Chinese President Xi Jinping said China was willing to help push Sino-French ties to a higher level, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also congratulated Macron.

The euro currency, which had been rising for two weeks as the prospect receded that France would elect an anti-EU president, topped $1.10 in early Asian trading for the first time since the U.S. elections, before easing back.

“Fading political risk in France adds to the chance that euro zone economic growth can surprise to the upside this year,” said Holger Schmieding, an analyst at Berenberg Bank.

Macron will become France’s youngest leader since Napoleon. A 39-year-old former investment banker, he served for two years as economy minister under Hollande but has never previously held elected office.

Le Pen, 48, said she had also offered her congratulations. But she defiantly claimed the mantle of France’s main opposition in calling on “all patriots to join us” in constituting a “new political force”.

Her tally was almost double the score that her father Jean-Marie, the last far-right candidate to make the presidential runoff, achieved in 2002, when he was trounced by the conservative Jacques Chirac.

Her high-spending, anti-globalisation “France-first” policies may have unnerved financial markets but they appealed to many poorer members of society against a background of high unemployment, social tensions and security concerns.

 

 

RESHAPING THE LANDSCAPE

 

Despite having served briefly in Hollande’s deeply unpopular Socialist government, Macron managed to portray himself as the man to revive France’s fortunes by recasting a political landscape moulded by the left-right divisions of the past century.

“I’ve liked his youth and his vision from the start,” said Katia Dieudonné, a 35-year-old immigrant from Haiti who brought her two children to Macron’s victory rally.

“He stands for the change I’ve wanted since I arrived in France in 1985 – openness, diversity, without stigmatising anyone … I’ve voted for the left in the past and been disappointed.”

Macron’s team successfully skirted several attempts to derail his campaign – by hacking its communications and distributing purportedly leaked documents – that were reminiscent of the hacking of Democratic Party communications during Hillary Clinton’s U.S. election campaign.

Allegations by Macron’s camp that a massive computer hack had compromised emails added last-minute drama on Friday night, just as official campaigning was ending.

While Macron sees France’s way forward in boosting the competitiveness of an open economy, Le Pen wanted to shield French workers by closing borders, quitting the EU’s common currency, the euro, radically loosening the bloc and scrapping trade deals.

Macron will become the eighth – and youngest – president of France’s Fifth Republic when he moves into the Elysee Palace after his inauguration next weekend.

Opinion surveys taken before the second round suggested that his fledgling movement, despite being barely a year old, had a fighting chance of securing the majority he needed.

He plans to blend a big reduction in public spending and a relaxation of labour laws with greater investment in training and a gradual reform of the unwieldy pension system.

A European integrationist and pro-NATO, he is orthodox in foreign and defence policy and shows no sign of wishing to change France’s traditional alliances or reshape its military and peacekeeping roles in the Middle East and Africa.

 

 

NEW GENERATION

 

His election also represents a long-awaited generational change in French politics that have been dominated by the same faces for years.

He will be the youngest leader in the current Group of Seven (G7) major nations and has elicited comparisons with youthful leaders past and present, from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to British ex-premier Tony Blair and even the late U.S. president John F. Kennedy.

But any idea of a brave new political dawn will be tempered by an abstention rate on Sunday of around 25 percent, the highest this century, and by a record share of blank or spoiled ballots – submitted by more than 11 percent of those who did vote.

Many of those will have been supporters of the far-left maverick Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose high-spending, anti-EU, anti-globalisation platform had many similarities with Le Pen’s.

Melenchon took 19 percent in coming fourth in the first round of the election, and pointedly refused to endorse Macron for the runoff.

France’s biggest labour union, the CFDT, welcomed Macron’s victory but said the National Front’s score was still worryingly high.

“Now, all the anxieties expressed at the ballot by a part of the electorate must be heard,” it said in a statement. “The feeling of being disenfranchised, of injustice, and even abandonment is present among a large number of our citizens.”

The more radical leftist CGT union called for a demonstration on Monday against “liberal” economic policies.

Like Macron, Le Pen will now have to work to try to convert her presidential result into parliamentary seats, in a two-round system that has in the past encouraged voters to cast ballots tactically to keep her out.

She has worked for years to soften the xenophobic associations that clung to the National Front under her father, going so far as to expel him from the party he founded.

On Sunday night, her deputy Florian Philippot distanced the movement even further from him by saying the new, reconstituted party would not be called “National Front”.

 

Charles Platiau

Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party candidate for French 2017 presidential election, concedes defeat at the Chalet du Lac in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris after the second round of 2017 French presidential election, France, May 7, 2017. Charles Platiau/Reuters

 

 

LE PEN PLEDGES TO OVERHAUL PARTY AFTER ELECTION DEFEAT

 

Marine Le Pen on Sunday put a brave face on her crushing defeat to Emmanuel Macron in Sunday’s presidential election, pledging to overhaul her far-right party and turn it into the main opposition to France’s new centrist leader.

Analysts said she looked set to maintain her grip on the National Front (FN), despite criticism from some party members, including her own relatives, over her campaign.

Despite losing to Macron by around 35 percent to 65, Le Pen did nearly twice as well as her father did when he reached the second round of the election in 2002, but fell short of the 40 percent party officials had said would be a success.

The anti-EU, anti-immigration party will now focus on the mid-June parliamentary elections, although Le Pen recognised that the party needs far-reaching change.

In a brief address to supporters who booed Macron’s victory and then sadly chanted France’s La Marseillaise anthem when the news of Le Pen’s defeat emerged, the 48-year-old far-right leader said the National Front (FN) “must deeply renew itself.”

“I will propose starting this deep transformation of our movement in order to make a new political force,” she added.

It was unclear at this stage what impact the overhaul would have on policy.

FN deputy head Florian Philippot said the new party would not be called the National Front, the party’s name for more than four decades. The brand is well known in France and abroad but is very much associated in voters’ minds with her maverick father Jean-Marie, who has been convicted several times for incitement to racial hatred.

While Le Pen did not address the question of the party’s name, she said she aimed to reach out beyond the current FN and reconstruct the French political landscape around a “patriots” versus “globalists” divide.

But achieving that goal will be no easy task.

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the leader of a small nationalist party who backed Le Pen after he attracted just under 5 percent of votes in the first round, and whom Le Pen had promised to appoint as her prime minister if she won, said on Sunday he would not join her new party and would instead present his own candidates in the parliamentary ballot, independently of the FN.

“If even the man who should have been her prime minister says he won’t be part of it, the question is, whatever the name of the party, who will be there and what its policies will be?” said Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher who specialises in the far-right.

The conservative The Republicans party hopes to rebound in the parliamentary elections. Its officials, and most of its supporters, are seen sticking to their party rather than joining the FN, analysts said.

Although the National Front can count on a loyal base, it only has two seats in the current lower house of parliament and a poll last week predicted the party would win only around 15-25 seats in the June elections.

The OpinionWay-SLPV Analytics poll of 535 of the 577 constituencies found Macron’s En Marche! (Onwards!) party would emerge as the largest group, followed by the conservatives.

 

 

“LESSONS TO BE LEARNED”

 

In a party where the Le Pen family has always called the shots, Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie and her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a rising star and FN lawmaker, said Marine Le Pen’s campaign had not been convincing enough and had been undermined by its position on the euro.

A majority of voters oppose ditching the euro, which is at the heart of the FN’s economic programme. While Le Pen in the last days of the campaign appeared to soften her position on its timetable, Marechal-Le Pen said that came too late.

“There are clearly lessons to be learned,” she said on France 2 television. “We clearly didn’t manage to get this election to be understood as a referendum for or against France, a referendum for or against immigration … for or against the European Union as we know it.”

Last Wednesday’s televised candidates’ debate, in which Le Pen constantly attacked Macron and seemed at times uneasy on economic issues, was also cited by analysts and supporters alike as a reason for the defeat.

“The debate was a failure,” FN supporter Jean-Francois Perier, a 76-year old pensioner, said at Sunday’s FN election gathering. “I just hope now we will rebound for the parliamentary elections.”

Despite the criticism, analysts said Le Pen’s leadership was unlikely to be challenged.

“There is a lot of disappointment but no one contests her leadership,” said researcher Sylvain Crepon, of the university of Tours. He said that would remain true even if the legislative elections were also a disappointment. “Her grip on the party is simply too strong,” he said.

Researcher Camus said the only possible opponent at this stage, Marechal-Le Pen, who has had a series of public disagreements with her aunt over the years, did not seem to want to lead any challenge.

Top party officials agreed.

“It’s thanks to Marine Le Pen that we got this historic score for our party, it is out of the question that she wouldn’t be with us to wage that new battle,” said the head of the FN Youths, Gaetan Dussausaye, while adding that the party overhaul would mean fresh faces and party structures.

“There is today a new opposition leader and it’s Marine Le Pen,” top party official Jean-Lin Lacapelle told reporters. But he added: “We need to organise things differently, the National Front has its limits.”

 

 

 

 

(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander and Simon Carraud)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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