Thursday 18 January 2018

EU leaders breathe a huge sigh of relief as many voters pick 'the lesser of two evils'

Ballot papers are counted in the western town of Quimper Picture: AFP/Getty
Ballot papers are counted in the western town of Quimper Picture: AFP/Getty

Shona Murray in Paris

'Maa-cron President," chanted the crowds of French citizens flocking to Paris's Carousel de Louvre last night to welcome their new president.

When the result was announced, most EU leaders breathed a sigh of relief before taking to their phones to warmly congratulate their new counterpart.

"It's a victory of love over hate," said Anna (25). "I voted for Benoit Hamon [in the first round], but I will celebrate tonight," she said.

"We are just so happy that Marine Le Pen has been stopped from getting to power," said Laurence, a 22-year-old student from north France.

"We want to be in the EU. We want to travel, we were really afraid that Marine would get elected, we would lose the euro, and France would be destroyed."

A low-ish turnout and the threat of scandal from a last-minute data dump by hackers wasn't enough to halt the advance of the 39-year-old former banker to the Elysée Palace.

His share of the polls had grown to 63pc after a bruising debate with Ms Le Pen last Wednesday.

Mr Macron's rise to power is indeed exceptional given that he had never before been elected to office, and launched his En Marche! movement just one year ago.

Read More: 'New page in history opening' as Macron sweeps to victory

As a choice for president, his exceptionalism largely ends there for even a large portion of those who voted for him. For many in France, Mr Macron simply represents the lesser of two evils, and not the panacea required to unite a divided country.

Mr Macron will have to "deal very quickly with this discontent", says Jean-Yves Camus, author of 'Far-Right Politics in Europe'.

"He has six months to bring a shake-up to the French political system. The French do not want to wait anymore."

"Le Pen would just fuel tensions - perhaps create civil war in France. She would take us out of Europe, and we really don't want that," said 30-year old Arthuro Onjou.

"It's not a question of her being potentially France's first female president, it's a question of ideology, philosophy, humanity, but I voted for Jean-Luc Melenchon for the first round," said 60-year old Antoine Girard.

It's not Mr Macron's lack of experience that put voters off from giving him their ringing endorsement, but other issues such as his time as economy minister when he forced through unpopular legislation liberalising employment rights, and his lacklustre centrist manifesto does little to meet the demands of an electorate whose frustration runs deep.

"My main battle is to ensure that our next president isn't Marine Le Pen, she is fascist, racist, sexist and dangerous; it's not that I like Macron, I think his liberal politics are also very dangerous for workers and students, but I need to make sure Marine Le Pen is not president, she is anti-democratic," said Aurelie, a law student at the University Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas.

Voter turnout was lower in this election than others in the last 50 years. The participation rate was 74pc.

As predicted, 26pc of voters abstained or voted "blanc" to indicate their apathy towards both candidates. The majority of them are most likely to have been far-left candidate Mr Melenchon's voters who saw Mr Macron as just another symbol of a broken system.

Disappointment and disillusion were the hallmarks of this presidential election, even though it was said to be one of the most important facing France in some time.

Ms Le Pen's momentum faded as the race came to a close and her performance at the debate raised more questions about her grasp of vital economic policies, including her much vaunted plan to abandon the euro which made little sense when she tried to explain it.

Nonetheless, the Front National has achieved its highest ever results in the second round of the presidential election.

Her party is on the rise, and Ms Le Pen managed successfully to draw voters from the mainstream.

That 35pc of French voters would vote for the Front National - a party synonymous with bigotry and xenophobia - is now the real story. Mr Macron's challenge to suppress that rise is immense.

Shona Murray is Newstalk's Foreign Correspondent

Irish Independent

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