France votes: presidential contest between Macron and Le Pen sends ripples across Europe

Sunday’s second-round vote is the most closely watched and unpredictable French presidential poll in recent memory

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 May, 2017, 6:11pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 May, 2017, 11:31pm

French voters went to the polls Sunday to pick a new president, choosing between young centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a watershed election for the country and Europe.

Whatever the result of the presidential election, the choice would resonate far beyond France’s borders, from extremist strongholds in Syria to Hong Kong trading floors and the halls of the UN Security Council.

Polling day followed an unprecedented campaign marked by scandal, repeated surprises and a last-minute hacking attack on Macron, a 39-year-old who has never held elected office.

With Macron the pollsters’ favourite, agency projections and initial official results were expected after 2am Hong Kong time Monday. But should an upset occur and National Front candidate Le Pen win, the very future of the European Union could be on the line.

Some who planned to vote for Macron saw him as the lesser of two evils as opposed to a saviour.

“I am not sure [Macron] is going to change anything, but I don’t think he’s going to harm anything,” said Macron supporter Benoit Ganzmann, a 42-year-old insurance professional who voted in Hong Kong Sunday.

There were 8,160 French nationals registered to vote in Hong Kong.

Outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande, who plucked Macron from virtual obscurity to name him economy minister in 2014, said he was hoping for his former protege to garner “the biggest possible score”.

The last polling showed Macron - winner of last month’s election first round - with a widening lead of around 62 per cent to 38 per cent before hacking revelations on Friday evening. A campaigning blackout entered into force shortly after.

Hundreds of thousands of emails and documents stolen from the Macron campaign were dumped online and then spread by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, leading the candidate to call it an attempt at “democratic destabilisation”.

Financial markets watched this election with exceptional attention, jittery over Le Pen’s dreams of pulling France out of the EU and its shared euro currency. The market mood was buoyed in recent days as polls showed the chance of a Le Pen victory receding.

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A Macron victory would mean that French voters will have broken with populist movement that put the UK on track to leave the European Union and carried Donald Trump to the White House.

A win for Le Pen would be a devastating blow to Europe’s post-war project of political unification and would likely unleash a financial market selloff as new concerns about the euro currency’s viability resurface. Le Pen posted her party’s biggest-ever vote in the first ballot.

France is a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and tens of thousands of troops scattered around the world. It is also a key US ally in the campaign against the Islamic State group. While its diplomatic strength has faded, Macron could bring new energy to French foreign policy – and firebrand Le Pen would be sure to make France’s voice heard in world affairs.

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Macron would likely keep up the French operations against extremists in Iraq and Syria and Africa’s Sahel region – and keep up pressure on Russia over Ukraine and its actions to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Le Pen, on the other hand, firmly backs Assad and has distanced herself from Trump over recent US missile strikes targeting Assad’s regime. Le Pen also met recently with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and would push for lifting sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.

Regardless of the final result, Le Pen has conquered the depressed towns of industrial decline in the north and east, building on the National Front’s traditional heartland of the south. France’s unemployment rate remains stuck at 10 per cent, roughly double the levels in the UK and Germany - a major challenge to the next president.

Neither the Socialists nor the Republicans, pillars of the country’s political establishment, qualified for the final round, the first time that’s happened since Charles De Gaulle ushered in the Fifth Republic in 1958.

“This election is about the defence of the euro,” Dominique Reynie, politics professor at the Sciences Po institute in Paris, said.

“And it’s about the fracture running through France like other western democracies between those who succeed thanks to globalisation, and those who pay the price for it.”

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Bloomberg, Rachel Blundy