PARIS — Centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen appeared positioned Sunday to move to the second round of the most tightly contested French presidential election in decades, in the latest test of a global populist wave that led to surprise electoral results in the United States and elsewhere.
If polls conducted before the first round of voting Sunday prove true, Macron will likely be the next president, an outcome that would come as a relief to both bureaucrats in Brussels and international investors. French politics have been reshaped dramatically this year — both of France’s traditional parties, the Socialists and Les Républicains, collapsed — but it appears the center may hold.
President Donald Trump appeared to flirt with supporting a Le Pen win as the election approached, telling The Associated Press last week that while he wasn’t endorsing her, he thought she was the “strongest on borders.”
Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, wants to overhaul France’s relationship with the European Union to give Paris far greater control over borders and economic policy. She has proposed calling a referendum on France’s membership in the EU and floated pulling the country out of the eurozone, which would likely throw Europe into a recession.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus played down Trump’s comments on Sunday, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the president’s comments did not suggest he wanted Le Pen to win.
“I think he may have some opinions, as far as who he thinks might win. But he certainly doesn’t have a preference, other than a right-of-center person who believes in the free market,” Priebus said.
The White House had not weighed in on the results publicly as of Sunday afternoon.
French media projected Macron and Le Pen would win close to 23 percent of the vote each, with one poll putting Macron slightly ahead of Le Pen. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and conservative former Prime Minister François Fillon each took about 19 percent of the first-round vote.
That means Macron and Le Pen will face off in the final round on May 7. Opinion polls published ahead of the first round suggested Macron would beat Le Pen easily in a runoff, which would be essentially a redo of the 2002 “republican front” that delivered over 80 percent of the vote to Jacques Chirac in order to keep Le Pen’s father, Jean Marine Le Pen, out of the Elysée Palace.
Fillon immediately called on his supporters to vote for Macron in a concession speech Sunday. So did Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, who came in fifth place with between 6 percent and 7 percent of the vote — a paltry total that, while in line with recent polls, underscores the disintegration of the Socialist party in France. Socialist President Francois Hollande is the first French president since World War II not to run for a second term, and the party had sought to shed Hollande’s unpopularity by nominating one of his biggest critics within the party.
Macron also held off a late surge by Mélenchon, whose communist sympathies and anti-EU, anti-NATO sentiments would have sent investors and diplomats into a panic if he’d ended up in a runoff with Le Pen.
Macron, who ran on a liberal, pro-EU platform, is a political novice, a 39-year-old former banker who has never held elected office. He formed his own independent political movement last year after resigning his post as Hollande’s economy minister.
The boyish banker has promised fiscal discipline in line with eurozone rules, partly in the hope of convincing Germany to agree to a common investment budget and joint finance minister for the zone.
The Islamist-motivated shooting on the Champs Elysées on Thursday threatened to upend the already-volatile race. Trump, who was quick to call it a terrorist attack, predicted on Twitter that it would have a “big effect” on the election. Some centrist observers worry that another attack over the next two weeks could drive an already nervous electorate into the arms of the anti-immigrant Le Pen. France has been under a state of emergency for 16 months, after a string of terror attacks in 2015.
Le Pen’s total Sunday is the highest ever for the National Front in a presidential election and just the second time her party has made it to the runoff, after her father shocked the establishment with his second-place finish in the first round of the 2002 election.
Should Macron win as expected, the election may be interpreted — along with the Dutch election earlier this year — as a turning of the tide against the populist surge that gripped Western politics in 2016.
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