Emmanuel Macron, like Donald Trump, personifies 'populism of the center'. Photo: AFP / Philippe Huguen

Speaking to jubilant supporters at his victory rally in Paris late Sunday, Emmanuel Macron said: “We are clearly turning a page in French political history.”

In many aspects, this is true. The result of the first round of the French presidential election in which Macron, a centrist independent, finished first, already marked a seismic shift in France’s political landscape. For the first time in almost six decades, the conservative Republicans and the ruling Socialists, both of whom have alternatively governed the country since the Second World War, failed to field a candidate in the second round.

François Fillon, a former prime minister, had to settle for third place with 20% of the vote. The centre-right candidate, who was once the frontrunner, was eliminated mainly due to a fake-job scandal involving his wife and children. This is the first time that an official centre-right candidate has failed to reach the runoff since the beginning of the fifth Republic, created by General Charles de Gaulle, in 1958.

Benoît Hamon, the centre-left candidate of outgoing President François Holland’s Socialist party, suffered an even more humiliating defeat, finishing fifth with a historically low 6.4%, the Socialists’ worst result in half a century.

Voters opt for outsiders over traditionalists

While rejecting the country’s two traditional parties, French voters embraced three outsiders. One of these outsiders is Jean-Luke Mélenchon, the far-left founder of La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France), a newly established movement backed by the French Communist Party, which claimed 19.6% of the vote. Though he only came fourth, just slightly behind Fillon, the ex-Trotskyist’s emergence as the top choice of the Left clearly shows a significant number of French voters are tired of France’s political elite and the ruling Socialist party in particular.

This anti-establishment attitude also promoted a growing number of French to turn to Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who qualified for the second round with 21.3% of the vote. Though Le Pen and her far-left rival Mélenchon are ideological opposites, Le Pen shared striking similarities with him.

Le Pen and Mélenchon are both anti-trade, anti-globalization candidates, who strongly favor economic protectionism. The 48-year-old nationalist and the 65-year-old leftist also rage against international institutions, of which France is a key member, such as the World Bank, WTO, IMF, and Nato, with both of them threatening to take their country out of the EU and the Euro single currency. What is more, they are Russophiles and support closer ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

A Macron win will avert extremist nightmare

Le Pen regards the EU as a threat to France’s sovereignty and national identity, while the anti-capitalist Mélenchon views it as a neoliberal, elite-led institution that has ignored the working class. Given their extreme views, there were fears in France, Europe and elsewhere that Le Pen and the hard-left firebrand would reach the second round. This nightmare scenario was averted due mainly to the rise of Macron, who claimed 24% of the vote.

Macron’s first-round success is, without doubt, the most historic and revolutionary aspect of the election.

Macron’s first-round success is, without doubt, the most historic and revolutionary aspect of the election. He served President Hollande as economic adviser and then economy minister for two years, but the 39-year old had never stood for election.

Barely a year ago, he established a new political movement, En Marche! (On The Move!). A few months later, he left the Socialist government and launched his presidential bid. Few people thought the political novice stood a chance of passing the first round, let alone winning the presidency.

But, barring an unexpected turn of events, Macron will comfortably defeat Le Pen in the final round because many voters from the centre-right and centre-left parties will back him to prevent a far-right nationalist from entering the Élysée Palace. In their concession statements, both Fillon and Hamon have already backed Macron and urged their supporters to follow suit.

Polls show a Le Pen second-round win unlikely

His chance of becoming France’s youngest-ever president since Napoléon is also boosted by the fact that he came out on top in the first round. Moreover, opinion polls, which accurately predicted the results of the first round, show Macron with an enormous lead over Le Pen.

That a political neophyte without the support of either of the two major political parties would become the president of one of the worlds’ oldest democracies and biggest economies was almost unthinkable less than a year ago.

His meteoric rise is even more remarkable when taking into account what he stands for. Unlike Mélenchon and, especially, Le Pen, the former investment banker is a liberal internationalist. He is a passionate defender of the EU, an eager believer in open trade and an ardent proponent of Western liberal values.

In many ways, his worldview, which is positive and optimistic, is also antithetical to what led to Britain’s decision to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s rise to the power in the US.

That is why — perhaps with the exception of Putin’s Russia, and to some extent, Trump’s America and Britain’s Brexiteers — France’s EU partners, international investors, and liberal internationalists around the globe were responsive to his first-round triumph and hope for a similar result in the May 7 runoff.

Should Macron prevail, his victory will be a game-changer, not only for France’s 66 million citizens but also for Europe and the wider world.

France and Europe face huge challenges

No doubt, a Macron victory will not resolve all of the huge challenges facing France and Europe. All the more so should he fail to win a significant number of seats in the National Assembly in June’s parliamentary elections. His party, En Marche!, currently holds no seats in the country’s parliament. Without the backing of his own legislators, it would be difficult for him to implement his progressive, liberal and pro-European reforms.

Yet, there is a good chance that the Europhile’s win in the faceoff would enable France to carry out such an agenda. This would help revive the EU, whose existence is threatened by the Brexit vote and Eurosceptic forces in other EU countries.

A Macron presidency will also restrain the anti-globalization and anti-trade sentiments that led to the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory, which have, in turn, caused uncertainty and even disruption not only in the UK and America but also around the world.

A victory for Le Pen, who is anti-immigrant, anti-European and anti-trade, would be even more calamitous than the Brexit vote and the Trump triumph. France’s withdrawal from the EU and its single currency would likely mean the demise of the six-decade-old bloc. Unlike Britain, which joined the regional grouping late and was never wholeheartedly wedded to it, France, together with Germany, are the two cornerstones of the whole European project.

And the collapse of the world’s second largest economy, whose existence is also central to unity and peace in a formerly divided and war-torn Europe, would have devastating ramifications for the continent and the world at large.

That is why the stakes of the final vote are extremely high. Macron’s remarkable first-round achievement and the hope, joy, and optimism it has brought about to his supporters will be meaningless if he fails to make all his current advantages a reality.

Instead, should he remain the last man standing after May 7 and then transform En Marche! into a formidable political force in French politics after mid-June’s legislative elections, he could write a new — and better — page in the history of France and Europe.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.