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France’s Divide

A Macron victory is no certainty.

Many in Europe are breathing a sigh of relief after pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron gained the largest share of votes in the first round of France’s presidential election. But the second round will be a bitterly contested affair. And even if Macron emerges victorious, he will face an uphill battle implementing his promises.

© REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

France’s election has laid bare a deep divide along geographical and social lines on how voters see the future of their country. The run-off between an urban pro-Europe electorate backing Emmanuel Macron and an anti-EU working class supporting Marine Le Pen represents a clash of France’s two faces.

The map has been split into two, with overwhelming support for Le Pen in the northern and eastern regions of France that have been hard hit by unemployment and de-industrialization. She also swayed voters among the disenfranchised working class on the southern Mediterranean coast and poorer Paris suburbs.

Macron, meanwhile, secured big cities such as Paris, Lyon, and Bordeaux, as well as the west of the country, winning nearly 24 percent of the vote. Le Pen came in just behind Macron with 21.5 percent, a record high for her Front National party.

Despite Le Pen’s significant gains, this might well be the end of the road for her. Not only is her centrist rival Macron already the front-runner, he is also seen as the ideal candidate to unify the right and the left in a Republican Front – an unwritten agreement between France’s mainstream parties to band together and prevent the far-right FN from winning.

As in past elections, analysts expect French voters to strategically gang up against the far-right contender in support of her rival candidate Macron. Political leaders of all mainstream parties have already called to form a firewall against Le Pen in the May 7 run-off.

Has Le Pen Hit a Ceiling?

The large swathe of voters who did not support her in the first round are unlikely to swing behind her now. Le Pen might just have hit a ceiling. That is likely why she announced she was temporarily stepping down as head of the Front National, in a bid to win over a broader base.

She has built her platform on an anti-Europe agenda, calling for a “Frexit” – an exit from the eurozone and the European Union – a message that far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has also championed. He scored a surprising 19.6 percent of the vote, nearly doubling his 2012 result. Mélenchon, 65, is a former Trotskyite; he ran a campaign denouncing banks, globalization, and the EU – just like Le Pen.

That means the populist vote on both ends of the spectrum adds up to an astonishing 40 percent. Mélenchon and his party “La France Insoumise” (“Rebellious France”) refused to endorse Macron after the first round. He did, however, launch an online appeal to his supporters, calling on them to choose between abstention, a blank vote, or a vote for Macron – with a specification saying: “voting for the extreme right candidate is not an option.” It is indeed unlikely for Le Pen to gain much traction with far-left voters.

Yet analysts warn that turnout will be key to the outcome. If it is expected that supporters loyal to Le Pen will vote en masse, it is not necessarily the case for those who are not convinced by Macron. Should a large number abstain in the final round, Le Pen would benefit.

Despite a marked surge of anti-Europe sentiment, the majority of French voters still fear the Front National; some 58 percent see in it a danger for democracy.  Many believe Le Pen’s nationalist ideas and her anti-immigration stance as based on xenophobia and fanaticism.

Since Le Pen took the reins of the party from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011, she has worked hard to sanitize its image and rid it of deep-rooted anti-Semitism and revisionist claims.

But her efforts were tarnished by her recent claim that France was not responsible when French police rounded up around 13,000 Jews from occupied Paris in July of 1942 and led them to an indoor stadium, the Vel d’Hiv, before deportation to the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. Few survived.

Macron for Europe?

A Macron victory, meanwhile, would make him the country’s youngest president ever at 39 and shatter the political mold of the Fifth Republic, which has been ruled by presidents who hail from either the conservative or socialist parties.

Macron is a polished former investment banker who turned to politics under François Hollande’s presidency in 2012. He stepped down from his post as economy minister and formed a new political movement “En Marche!” (“On the Move”) last year to shake up the country’s traditional right-left divide.

His critics argue Macron is still an obvious product of the establishment, but he has won over voters with vows to rebuild the “failed” and “vacuous” French political system “that has been incapable of responding to our country’s problems for 30 years.”

His platform combines socially left policies with a liberal economy. If elected, he has vowed to invest in job training, extend unemployment benefits to all, reduce the number of students per classroom in working-class neighborhoods, and boost teacher’s salaries. He also would cut business taxes, relax labor laws, and shrink the public sector.

Macron is an ardent supporter of the EU and has indicated he wants to forge a new Franco-German partnership to lead the 27 countries of the EU. He has called for efforts to reinvigorate the eurozone and give a new impulse for the single market, which he said should be vigorously defended in Brexit talks with the United Kingdom.

His goal is to reinforce border control cooperation, establish a European defense fund to finance common military equipment, and to set up a shared intelligence information system. He also said he would expand Erasmus programs, supporting Europe student exchanges, to help the new generations build a European identity.

But if Macron is expected to benefit from the consensus vote against Le Pen on May 7, his presidency will face a huge test in June’s legislative elections. With his movement still in its infancy, he is unlikely to secure a majority in parliament and might be left to juggle with the very constellation he defeated: the traditional left-right bloc that has held sway in the National Assembly for 60 years.