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Apr 23, 2017 | 20:31 GMT

Macron and Le Pen to Face Off for French Presidency

Scrutineers at a polling station in Toulouse, southwestern France, count votes at the conclusion of the first round of the French presidential election, April 23.
(PASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Centrist Emmanuel Macron and populist Marine Le Pen have qualified for the second round of the presidential election in France and will face each other in the runoff vote on May 7. The two candidates defeated conservative Francois Fillon and left-wing challenger Jean-Luc Melenchon in one of the most unpredictable presidential elections in modern French history.

Macron and Le Pen have wildly different views on what the future of France should look like. Macron campaigned on a promise to cut public spending by some 60 billion euros (roughly $64 billion) and invest around 50 billion euros in policies to modernize the French economy. He also wants to reform France's labor legislation and further deregulate certain sectors of the French economy. Defending France's role in the European Union, Macron believes that Paris should co-lead the bloc alongside Germany. Le Pen, on the contrary, promises a policy of "intelligent protectionism," taxing certain foreign imports to shield domestic industries from competition. She also wants to close France's borders, reduce immigration, return to the franc as the national currency, and hold a referendum on France's membership in the European Union.

These conflicting ideas will come to a head on May 7. France's two-round electoral system was designed to make it difficult for extremist parties to win elections. The National Front has traditionally struggled to win support from other parties, which could undermine its chances of winning the runoff vote. In contrast, Macron's centrist platform should help him win support from people who voted for other candidates in the first round. After the first results were announced, Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon asked their voters to support Macron in the runoff. 

While Macron will appeal both to center-left and center-right voters, Le Pen will aim to attract support among conservative voters.

Notably, France's two traditional parties, the center-right Republican Party and the center-left Socialists, were eliminated in the first round of the election. This shows the extent to which French voters are exhausted of traditional political parties. Voter abstention was around 22.7 percent, above the 20.5 percent of the previous presidential election in 2012.

Still, the mainstream parties will continue to play an important role in French politics in the future. While the French constitution gives presidents broad powers on foreign policy and defense, they need support from the National Assembly to pass legislation. The legislative elections, also held in two rounds in June, will be key for the governability of the country. Le Pen and Macron are popular individually, but they do not lead large parties with a strong presence across the country. Additionally, Many voters who supported protest candidates in the presidential election could turn to the mainstream parties in the legislative elections. Should different parties control the presidency and the National Assembly, policymaking could become cumbersome, making reforms difficult to implement.

Financial markets will probably be relieved by the April 23 results, concerned as they were about a possible runoff between Le Pen and Melenchon. The German government will also be pleased, as Le Pen and Melenchon are both critical of the European Union. However, the fact that a large segment of the French electorate voted for parties that are critical of the bloc offers little room for complacency. The potential for institutional paralysis between France's presidency and National Assembly, along with high unemployment and social concerns over immigration and security, will still generate Euroskeptic and anti-globalization sentiments in France. Even a moderate government will be under pressure to adopt populist elements to try and maintain the support of its polarized and disillusioned electorate.

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