France’s two contenders for the presidency launched their campaigns Monday in a frantic bid to garner an absolute majority by convincing voters they each have the measure of change that French voters want.
The choice before French voters in the final round of elections on May 7 will be between staying the course in the European Union or following the lead of Britain and leaving the bloc.
In picking former banker and economy minister Emmanuel Macron and nationalist crusader Marine Le Pen, voters rejected mainstream parties in what analysts said amounted to a revolution in French politics. For the first time since the founding of Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, the left-leaning Socialists and the right-leaning Republicans were shut out of the race.
“In two weeks, I want to become your president, the president of all the people of France. The president of patriots against the threat of nationalists,” Macron told supporters at a rally after his victory in the first round, taking a jab at Le Pen and drawing on the sensibilities of French voters who want change, but not at the cost of overturning France’s relationship with Europe.
Le Pen’s victory message to supporters was one of determination to march ahead with an agenda to strengthen France’s borders, curtail immigration, chase out the establishment politicians, and throw off the influence of Brussels.
“It is time to free the French people from the arrogant elite who want to dictate people’s behavior, because, yes, I am the candidate of the people,” she told cheering supporters.
EU officials, in an unusual move, congratulated centrist Macron, a gesture analysts say shows the alarm that Le Pen’s advance to the second round is causing among EU leaders.
“Le Pen’s program will cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs in France and in Europe,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Monday during a visit to Jordan. “It will be done at the expense of the ordinary workers, and that is why we support Emmanuel Macron.”
France, Gabriel said, “is a large European nation without which we cannot shape Europe. That is why his program for France is tantamount to a new beginning in Europe. We have the chance together to manage to reform Europe with Emmanuel Macron.”
European markets soared as did the euro on Monday, something analysts attribute to relief the race will be between a moderate and a candidate of the extreme.
In the days before the poll, speculation had grown that far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon might have a chance after his popularity surged in the final moments, which would have meant a race between the far right and the far left.
How far from center?
In the first round, the polls were mostly correct in predicting a shift to non-traditional parties, but analysts caution the second round could be more unpredictable, since it will be a measure of how far voters want to go in their push for change.
Polls and many observers are betting on a Macron victory, saying Le Pen will find it difficult to reach beyond her established support base, which is largely in the economically depressed, de-industrialized northeast of France.
Macron will have to convince voters that he does not represent an extension of the policies of unpopular outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande, despite the past close ties between the two men.
Some analysts believe the task may not be so difficult, considering many voters on the center and left may see themselves as voting against Le Pen, rather than for Macron.
French voters, they say, may have attained the change they wanted at this stage by excluding the traditional parties from the race.
Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst in Paris, sees the appetite for change as similar to that of the United States last November, but believes the French may not be ready to go all the way.
“There’s the same feeling I heard in the United States at time of its election,” Camus told VOA. “We also have this feeling here. But the National Front is not the only party that wants to change the system. The left also wants to change the system.
“There is anger at the politicians, but I think not to the point where this will become a revolution,” he said.