France on edge for two weeks over country’s future 

April 11, 2022 - 18:4

TEHRAN- Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen have qualified for what looks likely to be a very tightly fought presidential election runoff on April 24.

With all votes counted, the incumbent president secured 27.6 percent of the vote and his rival won 24.01 percent. Other major candidates admitted defeat, which means the two French heavyweights will face off in a rematch of the 2017 election. 

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon came in third place with 22% of the vote

However, unlike in 2017, this time around the two are projected to be neck and neck going into the second round. 

The French president is elected by a direct vote. There is no electoral college or parliament involved. Any candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the popular vote is elected. If no candidate wins that majority in the first round, as happened in the early hours of Monday morning, the top two candidates go through to a run-off election two weeks later.

Macron, who has served a five-year term in office, is a pro-European economic liberal and will now be battling for a rare second term in office against the far-right nationalist Le Pen.

It's been two decades now since the last time a French president won a second term.

A victory for Le Pen in the second round will strike a similar jolt to the French establishment as Britain's Brexit vote did to depart the European Union or Donald Trump's 2017 victory to the White House. 

Her radical, far-right anti-immigration platform would involve banning the Muslim headscarf from all public places, including the street, calling it a “uniform of totalitarian ideology”. 

She said: “People will be given a fine in the same way that it is illegal to not wear your seatbelt. It seems to me that the police are very much able to enforce this measure.”

France would move away from being a driving force for European integration to being led by a euro-sceptic who is also suspicious of the NATO military alliance.

While Le Pen has ditched past ambitions for a "Frexit" or to pull France out of the euro zone's single currency, she envisages the bloc as a mere alliance of sovereign states.

IFOP pollsters predicted a very tight runoff, with 51% for Macron and 49% for Le Pen. The gap is so tight that victory either way is within the margin of error.

Other estimates by pollsters OpinionWay, Elabe, and Ipsos show Macron and Le Pen almost neck and neck. Those estimates, published as voting ended, are normally quite reliable in France. 

Macron told his supporters "make no mistake: nothing is decided, and the battle we will wage in the next 15 days will be decisive for France and Europe," he told supporters at his campaign headquarters. 

The incumbent leader also urged all voters to rally behind him on April 24th to prevent the far-right from ruling the European Union's second-largest economy.

Le Pen, who in recent weeks went up in the polls thanks to a campaign focused on matters related to the cost of living says she was the one to protect the weak and unite a nation tired of its elite.

"what will be at stake on April 24 is a choice of society, a choice of civilization," she told supporters "I will bring order back to France."

Just a month ago, Macron was on course to comfortably ensure a second term, riding high in polls thanks to strong economic growth and a split opposition.

However, he paid the price with his late entry into the campaign during which he avoided walkabouts in provincial regions in favor of a single large rally outside Paris. 

Macron’s policies of making people work longer also proved unpopular, enabling Le Pen to narrow the gap in opinion polls.

Le Pen, by contrast, for months has been touring towns and villages across the country, focusing on cost-of-living issues that trouble millions at the moment and tapping into anger towards the political elite. She also says her platform would protect the weak and make France independent.

Who will hold the Elysee Palace next will depend on how those who backed Macron and Le Pen's rivals cast their ballots. 

The biggest shock of the night was the very low score of Valerie Pecresse, the candidate for former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s traditional right-wing party Les Republicans. 

She was projected to take less than five percent, a poor showing that is likely to lead to the implosion of her party in favor of its hardliners. This could leave France in a unique position in Europe of not having a traditional mainstream right.

Pecresse warned of "disastrous consequences" if Macron did not win the runoff.

As well as Pecresse, the Socialists' Anne Hidalgo, the Greens' Yannick Jadot, and the Communists' Fabien Roussel announced they would be backing Macron to block the far-right.

"So that France does not fall into hatred of all against all, I solemnly call on you to vote on April 24 against the far-right of Marine Le Pen," said Hidalgo.

But they all also had very harsh words for Macron and some of the very unpopular policies of his first mandate as well as an abrasive style that has put off many voters.

"Emmanuel Macron played with fire," Pecresse told supporters.

But another far-right candidate Eric Zemmour will call on his supporters to back Le Pen. He acknowledged disagreements with Le Pen but said Macron was a worse choice.

However, surveys suggest that the so-called "republican front" has crumbled, with many left-wing voters saying they are loathed to endorse a leader they view as arrogant and a "president of the rich."

Melenchon who took the third spot called on his supporters not to vote for Le Pen in the second round but stopped short of telling supporters they should back Macron.

"We know who we will never vote for... Not a single vote must go to Mrs. Le Pen," Melenchon said at his party headquarters in Paris.

"You are in a capacity to lead this battle, and the next, and the next, as many as there could be," Melenchon said.

Macron has voiced strong concern over the rise of the far-right telling French voters to avoid the country moving in that direction. 

But analysts have accused the French President of the rise of the far-right, saying his heavy-handed crackdown on the Yellow Vest protests as well as his own anti-Muslim rhetoric has tapped into the sentiments of far-right voters. 

Other experts also agreed to describe Macron himself as being on the right to try and win right-wing voters and only has himself to blame for the dramatic projection increase in votes towards Le Pen.

Many are expecting fierce campaigning between the two for the future of the country’s political landscape with both candidates certain to try and tactically grab the votes of other parties who lost out. 

Unlike five years ago, when Macron celebrated after the first round knowing the far right would never stand a chance, he has much work to do this time around amid a low voter turnout reflecting the frustration of the French and the deep polarization in the country. 

Macron faces the heavy task to be the first French president to win a second term in 20 years and it really does feel like France is in uncharted territory.

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