After the most extraordinary and nasty election campaign France has ever seen, a young, inexperienced but audacious man has become the new French president — all without having ever fought an election before.
On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of a dynasty of political mavericks who thought she would easily defeat her dream enemy. It was a clear victory, but one with a bitter aftertaste, exposing a divided country and presenting huge challenges for the new president.
When television screens announced on Apr. 23 that Marine Le Pen would face Emmanuel Macron in the second round of elections on May 7, the far-right leader could not have hoped for a better rival. She would be running against a product of the elite system, a former investment banker, financial adviser and later economy minister to the most unpopular President of the fifth Republic, François Hollande.
She referred to this battle as “patriot vs globalist,” a clear choice between French national values on one side, European bureaucracy and profit-oriented globalization on the other.
Ever since she was five years old, Le Pen was raised to be a fighter by her father, the holocaust denying Jean-Marie, who started the National Front four decades ago. This background meant she thought she would easily outmanoeuvre the 39-year-old former banker (almost an insult in France), who had no experience in a political fight, no established party behind him, and was too intellectual and urbane to be able to seduce voters from the “real” country.
She was wrong, despite an early momentum in the first few days of the second round campaign that had Macron supporters worried.
A sudden surge
When Macron announced that he was going to visit striking workers at a factory in eastern France who were fighting against the closure of their workplace and its transfer to low-wage Poland, Marine Le Pen rushed to get there before him, promising the workers they’d keep their jobs in France, and taking selfies with them, before leaving to the sound of applause. When Macron arrived, he was booed and had a tough time trying to establish dialogue with the workers.
Two days later, Le Pen scored another victory by striking a deal with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a small right-wing candidate knocked out in the first-round who received 5 percent of the vote and called on his supporters to vote for her. This was a first in French politics: it signed the end of the so-called “republican pact,” under which all political forces join hands against fascism.
Success for Le Pen also came in the ambiguous attitude of the charismatic radical-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who refused to tell his almost 20 percent of voters what to do in the second round, leading many of them to reject both the far-right and the liberal finalists.
If victory for Le Pen had never been predicted by French opinion polls, her supporters and strategists did not exclude a surprise win “à-la-Trump,” or at least a result above 40 percent – which would allow her to claim the undisputed mantle of leader of the opposition.
To achieve that goal, she had to win the only TV debate between the two candidates – a modern-day gladiator fight in front of millions of undecided voters. But she failed miserably, coming across as aggressive and unprepared. The Le Pen momentum had screeched to a halt.
Emmanuel Macron really became president that night. Many undecided voters chose to support him after seeing his continued calm and self-restraint, despite the flow of sarcasm, smears and attacks from his opponent.
A divided France
In the final days of the campaign, Emmanuel Macron had to face a bombardment of disinformation and fake news, including forged documents accusing him of having an illegal bank account in the Bahamas, and the leak of thousands of emails from his party just two hours before the end of the official campaign Saturday.
But these last-gasp attempts at destabilization produced a backlash. They disgusted even uncommitted voters who thought these attempts to hijack the election were too blatant.
Despite the joy and sense of relief many felt in France when the outcome became clear Sunday night, the picture is not all rosy. The results showed a deeply divided country, with one-third of voters choosing a far-right demagogue, and many others choosing to abstain or vote blank in unprecedented numbers to show their dislike for both candidates.
In his first speech as president Sunday night, Emmanuel Macron said he had heard the “anger” and the “fears” of some of his compatriots, and promised that he would work to be an inclusive president. He knows these marginalized voters consider him the candidate of globalization, and he must prove to them that he can be their president.
For the moment, even those who didn’t vote for him admit that having a 39-year-old president has given the country an air of optimism that it has not seen in a long time. Can Macron lead France away from its paralyzing pessimism? For this new leader promising a different path, the hard work is just beginning.