French Voters Reject Nationalism and Choose Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

By Updated at 2017-05-08 06:02:45 +0000

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By Mathieu Rosemain and Matthias Blamont | PARIS — 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 the far right nationalist 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 program.

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 revitalize the Franco-German axis at the heart of the EU, saying he planned to visit Berlin shortly.

Trump also tweeted his congratulations on Macron's "big win", saying he looked forward to working with him.

The euro currency EUR=EBS, 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.

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

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

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-globalization '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 last 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 stigmatizing 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.

When he moves into the Elysee Palace after his inauguration next weekend, Macron will become the eighth - and youngest - president of France's Fifth Republic.

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

He plans to blend a big reduction in public spending and a relaxation of labor 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 defense 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 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 the blank or spoiled ballots submitted by 12 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-globalization 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 labor union, the CFDT, welcomed Macron's victory but said that 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 vote 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".

France's youngest leader since Napoleon

It has taken only three years for Emmanuel Macron to rise from being an unknown government adviser to be elected France's youngest head of state since Napoleon.

Elected on Sunday several months before his 40th birthday, the centrist has turned a stale establishment upside down while eschewing the wave of economic and political nationalism that helped Britain to vote for "Brexit" and Donald Trump to be elected U.S. president.

His election represents a long-awaited generational change in French politics where the same faces have dominated 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 President John F. Kennedy in the United States.

Many attribute Macron's stunning rise to a deep yearning for a fresh face, coupled with a rare message of optimism in a country that has long been obsessed with national decline.

"His campaign has been like group therapy - to convert the French to optimism," said writer Michel Houellebecq.

The unexpected collapse of many mainstream opponents certainly played a part, but Macron had the tactical nous to seize his chance.

He seemed destined for a steady climb up the ranks of the French establishment when he decided to apply his skills as a deal-making investment banker to the world of politics.

But since striking out on his own in August 2016 after only two years as a minister, he has tapped into widespread disenchantment to broadcast a strong anti-establishment message.

Despite having attended France's most prestigious schools, making a killing by brokering a $10 billion corporate acquisition, and serving in a Socialist government under President Francois Hollande, Macron has vowed to shake up the system that he comes from.

"France is blocked by the self-serving tendencies of its elite," he told supporters at a rally in the southern town of Pau. "And I'll tell you a little secret," he added, lowering his voice: "I know it, I was part of it."

"ALWAYS DOING SO MANY THINGS"

Born in Amiens, in the northern rustbelt, to a family of doctors, he describes in his campaign book "Revolution" an idyllic childhood spent "in books, a little removed from the world".

There, at age 15, he met his future wife Brigitte, who was his drama teacher - 24 years his senior and married with children. Their unusual relationship has fueled intense coverage by the glossy boulevard magazines.

After school, he moved to Paris and attended the Sciences-Po and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) academies, the traditional training ground of the French elite. In parallel, he worked as a research assistant to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur.

"He was always doing so many things at the same time," his Sciences-Po classmate Marc Ferracci told Reuters.

After finishing near the top of his class, he joined the civil service, before a four-year stint working in mergers and acquisitions for the investment bank Rothschild.

Helping to broker Nestle's acquisition of Pfizer's baby food division earned him a small fortune.

After Rothschild, he joined Hollande's staff in the Elysee in 2012 and it was not long before he became economy minister.

"He always wanted to be in politics, be elected. He talked about it all the time," said his ENA classmate Gaspard Gantzer, now Hollande's spin doctor.

In government, Macron set about attacking some of the sacred cows of the French "social model" such as the 35-hour working week, iron-clad job protection, and the civil service's culture of jobs-for-life.

These are messages that have earned him surprising popularity for an ex-banker in a country where many disdain the world of high finance - but also the contempt of many on the traditional left, as well as the nationalist right.

"You are already hated before you have even set foot in the Elysee," left-wing film director Francois Ruffin wrote in an open letter to Macron published last week.

"UBER OF FRENCH POLITICS"

Macron, who sleeps little and can often be seen online on the Telegram messaging service at 2 a.m., says his ambition is to bridge the left-right divide that has long dominated French politics.

Yet when he quit the government last August to build up the political movement he had founded only four months earlier, many saw him as a shooting star - at best.

"He won't last five minutes with the bad guys in the campaign," one of his predecessors at the finance and economy ministry scoffed privately last November.

But with the ruling Socialists in disarray and the center-right's candidate, Francois Fillon, mired in a financial scandal, Macron emerged in pole position.

"He did to French politics what Uber did to taxis," said Laurent Bigorgne, a friend of Macron's and head of the Institut Montaigne think-tank.

"It was clear from the start that Uber would make taxis obsolete; only the taxis didn't see it coming."

Macron has continued to confound opponents and pundits by building up huge grassroots support and winning endorsements from defecting center-left and center-right politicians.

Far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, whom he defeated after an acrimonious runoff campaign, scornfully dubbed him a "smirking banker" in a rancorous TV debate, painting him as the candidate of "globalization and Uberisation gone wild".

In a final put-down, when Le Pen attempted to interrupt his summing-up, Macron told her: "You stay on TV. I want to be president of the country."

(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Noah Barkin; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Richard Balmforth)

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