France has chosen a new President after a turbulent and scarring election in which the centrist moderate Emmanuel Macron comprehensively beat Marine Le Pen of the hard-right Front National.
Ms Le Pen had boasted that France would follow the triumphant populist path of Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump in the US. But her harsh and negative campaign based on opposition to the European Union, opposition to immigration and opposition to supposed elitism, while espousing aggressive nationalism, was emphatically rejected by the voters.
Instead they chose, with around 65 per cent of valid votes cast, compared with only 35 per cent for his opponent, to entrust power at a time of domestic and international uncertainty to Mr Macron, a former Rothschild banker, who has made support for the European Union one of the central tenets of his appeal to the electorate.
As dusk fell on a rainy day in Paris, thousands of Mr Macron’s joyous supporters were gathering, waving the European Union flag as well as the Tricolour, outside The Louvre to celebrate the victory, at the age of 39, of the youngest President in the Republic’s history.
Across the city at at the Front National camp, Ms Le Pen told her subdued followers that the country had chosen the continuity candidate.
However, she claimed a “historic, massive result” and promised to “lead the fight” in parliamentary elections next month and pledged to create “a new political force” – though did not offer any more details.
Mr Macron’s arrival at the Elysee Palace will resonate in the stance taken by Brussels towards both the increasingly acrimonious Brexit talks and Washington where the Trump administration had come to power repeatedly denigrating the European Union; although criticism from the US has become more muted of late. Indeed, Mr Trump congratulated Mr Macron for his big win.
The Le Pen camp had greeted Mr Trump’s election last November with the tweet: Their world is crumbling. Ours is being built.
Brexit, said the Front National leader “has been a powerful weapon for us”. The warmth was reciprocated by hardline Brexiteers. For Nigel Farage, for example, President Le Pen would have been a valued Eurosceptic ally while Mr Macron was seen as the enemy.
Mr Macron had warned in the past that the UK can expect no concessions in the Brexit negotiations if he is elected, vowing to hold a rigid line on access to the EU’s single market and the powers of the European court. The “best trade deal for Britain”, he maintained, was really “membership of the EU”.
Theresa May was quick off the mark with Downing Street saying in a statement: “The Prime Minister warmly congratulates President-Elect Macron on his election success. France is one of our closest allies and we look forward to working with the new President on a wide range of shared priorities.”
But it had been noticed in Paris that while Mr Macron’s victory over Ms Le Pen in the first round of the election was greeted with fulsome praise by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, and in Angela Merkel’s office, Downing Street announced that it would remain neutral between the two candidates.
Ms Le Pen’s defeat was not the first setback for right-wing populism in Europe. Norbert Hofer and Geert Wilders had failed to win in Austria and the Netherlands. But the prospect of a nation with the stature of France passing into the hands of a party regarded by so many to be racist, indeed near-fascist, had caused alarm internationally across the mainstream political board.
Of the three candidates beaten in the last round, the conservative François Fillon, and Benoit Hamon, the socialist, asked their supporters to vote for Mr Macron, while the team of the leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon advocated “anyone but Le Pen”.
But many, it appears, have not found either candidate palatable and the “ni-ni” ( “neither nor”) movement was vocal in calling for organised apathy. The abstention rate of nearly 25 per cent was higher this time than the previous three presidential elections with the turnout at 5pm at 65 per cent, down from 72 per cent in 2012, 75 per cent in 2005 and 68 per cent in 2002. The remaining votes were either spoiled or left blank.
Reacting to the result, Mr Melenchon said Mr Macron’s programme would destroy the French social system.
Mr Macron, who had tried to project himself as outside the establishment, faces a potentially tough time ahead; he has no party and will have to build a parliamentary base from scratch in coming elections in June.
This election has repeatedly shown that divisions in France run deep. But there were also signs of outside interference.
Groups which had helped Mr Trump’s election campaign have continued their clandestine activities in the French polls as well. Just as the Democratic Party computers were hacked in the American presidential campaigns, so were Mr Macron’s. And, as in the US, Moscow was blamed for interfering in the campaign.
Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party candidate for French 2017 presidential election, greets supporters at the Chalet du Lac in the Bois de… France’s electoral commission warned that it would be a criminal offence to publish the hacked documents, which appeared to be mixed with a number of forgeries, in case they influenced the voting, but they were being disseminated through social media using the hashtag #Macronleaks.
Ms Le Pen had claimed, falsely, in the TV debate that Mr Macron held offshore bank accounts, and, on the eve of polling Florian Philippot, Front National’s deputy leader, tweeted “will Macron leaks teach us something that investigative journalism has deliberately kept silent?”
Mr Macron’s campaign team, En Marche! complained that the hack was “clearly an attempt at democratic destabilisation, like that seen during the last presidential campaign in the US”.
Mr Macron, who, at 39, is the youngest President in French history, voted with his 64-year-old wife Brigitte in Le Touquet. Their marriage, with its age gap, and the fact that she was his teacher, had been much commented on during the campaign. Ms Le Pen seemingly tried to make an issue of it during her debate with Mr Macron, snapping at him at one stage “don’t play teacher and pupil with me, it’s not my thing”.
But there is no discernible evidence that it had any effect on voting intentions.
Ms Le Pen voted in Henin-Beaumont, a small town in north with a Front National administration. She arrived at the polling station with Steeve Briois, who had taken over as the party’s interim leader when she temporarily stepped down to focus on the election.
In an interview, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front National, declared that his daughter lacked the right qualities to become President, claiming she had “character” but not much else.
Mr Le Pen, 88, insisted that he wanted his daughter to win the election, but that his granddaughter, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, would have been a better candidate.
It remains to be seen what Marine Le Pen will do next. Her supporters said she will now be focusing on elections to come, but there is a feeling among some in her party that she has been around so long that she has become part of what she castigates – the establishment. They see 27-year-old Marion Marechal-Le Pen as a leader in waiting.
In defeat, many of her supporters remained loyal and defiant.
Clotilde Berthier, a 63-year-old shopworker who recently moved to Paris from Caen in Normandy to live with her son, said: “We know how this country is suffering, jobs disappear, people lose their homes and, at the same time, we see refugees coming in and being given everything.
We suffer from Muslim terrorism. Macron is of the group who are responsible for this; he will be found out. Marine Le Pen is the person to save this country.
Emmanuel Macron was elected French President in a resounding victory over far-right rival Marine Le Pen after a deeply divisive campaign, initial estimates showed But Jean-Paul Eperney, a 27-year-old IT consultant, making his way to the rally by Mr Macron’s supporters outside The Louvre, was adamant.
I am not one of those who says I only voted for Macron because Fillon is not there, Hamon is not there, he wanted to stress.
Macron is modern, he is a progressive; the economy will get better with reform. I am for the EU, most of France is, we should be together, not divided.
I have lived in London and Bristol, they are great cities. It is a great pity that Britain chose to leave. But we made the right choice today for our future.