It’s as if in the home stretch of the toughest bicycle race in the world, the Tour de France, the leading bunch of riders were tied until the very last meters. But the two riders who had been tagged as the strongest proved that they were indeed capable of giving their utmost and being the first to cross the finish line – the tyro rider Emmanuel Macron, with the freshness reserved for the young, and the (relatively) veteran rider Marine Le Pen, who proved that, like her father, she should never be eulogized.
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Thus the real surprise in the dramatic first round of France’s presidential election was that there was no surprise. The exit polls confirmed what the pollsters had predicted: a run-off in another two weeks between the leader of the radical right and the leader of a centrist movement built from scratch on the ruins of the Socialist Party and widespread disgust for the Gaullist, establishmentarian rightist party that Nicolas Sarkozy (until recently) and Francois Fillon (until last night) systematically destroyed.
In this sense, Macron’s first-round victory Sunday night was certainly a ray of hope that France gave to Europe and the entire world: Extremism isn’t catching; it can be blocked at the polling booth, even if only by the skin of one’s teeth.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that almost half of French voters cast their votes on Sunday for candidates who are clearly and outspokenly against the existing order. From Le Pen on the far right to Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far left, the French voiced systematic disgust with the existing system and (as far back in the primaries) kicked out any candidate who reminded them of it.
From the forgotten president, Francois Hollande, who dropped out even before the race began, to Fillon, a former prime minister, who fell on his sword at the polling booths Sunday night, they were all sent into retirement. The second round of the presidential election will thus be the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic in which there will be no representative from either the Gaullist right, in its various incarnations, or traditional leftist party, the Socialists.
The only people who survived the electoral guillotine of 2017 were Le Pen and Macron. In the new campaign that began Sunday night, they will try to prove with signs and wonders that they represent something different.
Le Pen will try (again) to make people forget that she’s the daughter of a politician who was running for president as far back as 1974. Macron will try to make people forget that he served as finance minister under the humiliated outgoing president, Hollande. She’ll argue that she’s the only thing the French haven’t yet tried. He’ll argue that his lack of a party isn’t a weakness but a strength, which will enable him to govern with the help of the most promising forces in France and with no obligations to moldy internal party alliances.
Alain Duhamel, one of France’s veteran political pundits, argued before the vote that Macron was the weakest candidate in the first round but the strongest in the second. On Sunday, Macron refuted the first part of that assessment. Now he has two weeks minus a day to prove that the second part is true.
Does he have grounds for optimism? All the polls to date that have considered a second round pitting Le Pen against Macron have showed him with a double-digit lead over the National Front leader.
Yet it would be a mistake to think the victory is already in Macron’s pocket. A bloody terror attack, like those France has experienced periodically since January 2015, isn’t the only thing that could change the picture. An erosion of Macron’s support, or a massive movement by supporters of Melenchon and Fillon into Le Pen’s camp, could also cause Macron’s lead to melt away.
Charles de Gaulle, the general to whose measure the modern French presidency was tailored, once said that “optimism is well-suited to those who can afford it.” Macron will have to prove over the next two weeks that the optimism that swept through Europe on Sunday night indeed has something and someone on which to rest.