In France, it's a clash of conflicting ideals

The first round of voting in France’s presidential elections has gone along expected lines. Independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen emerged frontrunners and will butt heads in the final face-off on May 7.

The contest was close; Macron and Le Pen secured 23.7% and 21.7 % of the vote while the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and conservative Francois Fillon tied for third place with about 19.5% of the votes each. Hitherto, French presidential elections have been a contest between the establishment centre-right and the centre-left. This time however, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the Republican and the Socialist parties have been knocked out in the first round itself. The Socialists suffered a particularly humiliating defeat in the first round, securing just 6.2% of the vote, down from 52.7% that they got in the final round of the 2012 presidential election, when their candidate Francois Hollande won the presidency. It is an ignominious fall for the Socialists.

Macron and Le Pen represent two different visions of the future of France, its identity and role in Europe and the world. While Macron’s vision is inclusive, outward-looking and aimed at taking France to the centre of a strong European Union (EU), Le Pen is anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-globalisation and anti-NATO. Le Pen has toned down the extreme anti-Semitism and xenophobia associated with her party, the National Front. This has helped her shake off the pariah tag and broaden her support base. She has benefited, too, from the Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment that is sweeping through Europe. Her agenda appeals to a section of the French population that feels left out by globalisation. These are people who saw their jobs and livelihoods move to other parts of the world or fall into the hands of ‘outsiders.’ Should this angry and insecure section show up in large numbers on May 7, Le Pen could win the presidency.

But Macron is the favourite to win the elections. Poll surveys predict that he will defeat Le Pen by a wide margin as most of the candidates and parties ousted in the first round are likely to rally behind him to prevent a Le Pen presidency. Just 39 years old, Macron is a political greenhorn with little experience in elected office. Several of his supporters are unconvinced by his ‘fuzzy’ agenda but back him only because they are not persuaded that Le Pen’s new, relatively toned down image, is genuine. They prefer the untested Macron to what they know of Le Pen. But are they committed enough to Macron to come out to vote on May 7?

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