On Sunday evening, as the results in the first round of the French presidential election became known, there was – despite the fact that Marine Le Pen, the head of the Front National, made it to the second round on May 7 – a collective sigh of relief among many in France and throughout Europe: The polls turned out to be right; Le Pen would face Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old progressive centrist, in the second round rather than Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a hard left candidate who, like Le Pen, advocated exit from the eurozone and the EU. Macron won 24 percent of the vote, Le Pen 21.3 percent, and Mélenchon 19.6 percent.
On Monday, the markets celebrated; the worst-case scenario of a Mélenchon-Le Pen second round, pitting two candidates who, notwithstanding the fact that both are members of the European Parliament, want France to leave the eurozone and EU, had been avoided. The euro jumped in value against the dollar, the price of French bonds increased in secondary markets, French bank stocks went up 10 percent, the CAC 40 index went up 5 percent, and stock markets in Europe and the U.S. hit new highs.
And the relief was not confined to the financial markets; the EU itself, facing a protracted and difficult Brexit negotiation with the United Kingdom, also breathed a sigh of relief that the strongly pro-EU Macron had placed first and, by all estimates, will win easily on May 7. One of the first public endorsements of Macron Sunday evening came from Michel Barnier, a center-right former French foreign minister, member of the European Parliament and European Commissioner, and currently the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
As the results became known, commentators quickly seized on the fact that two “newcomers” had made it to the second round, rather than one or both of the candidates of the two parties – the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains – that have dominated political life in the Fifth Republic. But neither Macron nor Le Pen is a “newcomer.” Le Pen, a 48-year-old lawyer, has been a municipal and regional counsellor in the northernmost département of Pas-de-Calais and a member of the European Parliament since 2004. Her father, Jean-Marie, founded the FN in 1972 and made it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election. Le Pen has held a variety of positions in the party and has been its president for the last six years, leading it to victory in the 2014 election for the European Parliament with 25 percent of the vote.
It’s true that Macron is only 39, has never before run for or held elected office, and leads a party, En Marche! (On the move!), founded only a year ago. After graduating from Sciences Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, he became an inspecteur des finances and, as such, a member of one of the most prestigious and powerful of the Grands Corps de l’Etat, the highest echelon of the French civil service. After a brief career in banking with Rothschild & Cie, he served for two years as Deputy Secretary-General of the office of President François Hollande and then for two years until last August as the Minister of Economy and Industry. He is certainly an electoral “newcomer.” But he is hardly unknown.
It is true, however, that for the first time in the Fifth Republic, both the Socialists and the Republicans, the current manifestation of the Gaullist center-right tendance, will be absent from the second round, largely because of the choices the parties made in their presidential primaries.
After Hollande, with an approval rating in single digits, decided in December not to run for a second term, the Socialist Party held a two-round primary in January in which Benoît Hamon was chosen as the party’s candidate. Hamon, on the left of the party, served as a junior minister for social economy in 2012-14, and then as minister of education for four months before resigning in protest over Hollande’s “social-liberal” policy. He defeated a potentially stronger candidate, Manuel Walls, a former minister of the interior and prime minister under Hollande, was quickly outflanked on the left by Mélenchon, and ended up with 6 percent of the vote, the worst first-round defeat for the Socialists in the history of the Fifth Republic.
Three experienced candidates – former president Nicholas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé, a prime minister in the 1990s and foreign minister under Sarkozy in 2011-12, and François Fillon, the prime minister during Sarkozy’s presidency from 2007 to 2012– ran for the Republicans’ nomination. The members selected Fillon in their November primary. For the better part of two months, he led all the other candidates in the polls and it appeared he would get to the second round; the only question was whether he would face Hamon, Macron, Mélenchon or Le Pen.
But then came “Penelopegate” – the revelation that Fillon’s wife and two of his children had received nearly a million euros over the years as parliamentary assistants for work they didn’t perform. In February, Fillon was placed under formal investigation and the Republicans’ hopes of getting to the second round and regaining control of the Elysée faded – although he resisted suggestions that he step down in favor of Juppé and received 20 percent of the vote on Sunday, very nearly knocking Le Pen out of the second round.
The pre-election polls, which proved to be uncommonly accurate, as well as those taken Sunday evening after the results became known, suggest Macron will win roughly 60 percent of the vote on May 7. Those estimates are supported by the responses in an Ipsos survey conducted in the days before the first round that asked voters for candidates other than Macron and Le Pen who they would vote for on May 7 if the choice were between Macron and Le Pen. Of those who planned to vote for Mélenchon on Sunday, 40 percent said they’d vote for Macron, 6 percent said they’d vote for Le Pen, 18 percent said they weren’t sure who they’d vote for and 36 percent said they wouldn’t vote. Of those who planned to vote for Hamon, 62 percent said they’d vote for Macron, 3 percent said they’d vote for Le Pen, 13 percent said they weren’t sure who they’d vote for and 21 percent said they wouldn’t vote. And of those who planned to vote for Fillon, 34 percent said they’d vote for Macron, 23 percent said they’d vote for Le Pen, 13 percent said they weren’t sure who they’d vote for and 30 percent said they wouldn’t vote. Taken together, those numbers suggest a Macron landslide.
Once elected president, Macron will face an immediate and considerable challenge – how to translate his large presidential majority into a government with a legislative majority. That will require putting together a full slate of En Marche! candidates for the election of the National Assembly on June 11 and 18 and building alliances with other parties that will enable him to govern with a secure majority in the 577-seat Assembly. That won’t be easy. But as the endorsements of Macron’s candidacy poured in from leading figures in both the Socialist and Republican parties after Sunday’s election, the odds are good that he’ll succeed – and even better that France will remain wholeheartedly committed to the EU.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the Program in European Union Studies at the MacMillan Center at Yale.