Surprise! Round one of the French presidential election went pretty much as expected

First-round winners: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. AP/Christophe Ena (Macron)/Michel Spingler (Le Pen)

The votes are mostly counted in the first round of the French presidential election.

Marine Le Pen of the French far right National Front has received 21.5 percent of the vote. Emmanuel Macron, an independent candidate running on the slogan of En Marche! – which translates roughly to “Let’s March” – is slightly ahead with 23.9 percent.

Both candidates will proceed to the runoff round on May 7.

The winner of that round will be the next president of France.

There are many unusual features of this first-round vote, but let’s start with the fact that the French polls accurately predicted the outcome.

Pollsters get a win

Marine Le Pen had been on track to make the second round since the European parliamentary elections of 2014, when her party came in first ahead of more established parties. From the time that she took over the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011, she aimed to make it a party of governance and not simply provocation. The terrorist attacks of the last few years in France that elicited an increased collective anxiety around immigrants contributed to her momentum.

However, French and international media, spooked by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, contributed to a narrative that polls were unreliable and the outcome was up for grabs. For a few short weeks after the April 4 presidential debate that featured all 11 candidates, far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon seemed to have a chance to make it through to the second round. But in the end, even though FiveThirtyEight labeled the French election a “mess,” the French more or less voted as the polls said they would. The only real surprise was that the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon dropped to 6 percent in the first round.

Just because the results were not surprising does not mean that the first round was insignificant. On the contrary, it signals major ruptures in French and European politics – just not the ones that occupied print and social media.

Socialists and Republicans big losers

First, the election signaled the end of the political competitiveness of institutionalized French politics. The National Front has been around since 1972, but with the exception of 2002 and 2012, the party has remained at the margins of electoral politics. This is the first time in recent French electoral history that neither of the established political parties – Socialists or the Republicans– made it into the second round.

This wasn’t completely out of the blue, however. The last presidential election was a harbinger of the party dissolution observed today. In the 2012 election, the two extremes, again Le Pen and Melenchon, attracted more total votes than either Socialist Francois Hollande or Republican Nicholas Sarkozy.

Globalism and nationalism

Second, the tension between globalism and nationalism that the European Union embodies and that has been percolating at least since 2000 in France and beyond is finally out in the open. Intellectuals and politicians have done their best to ignore it for the last few years, until 2009, when the sovereign debt crisis and the Greek austerity regime exploded on the scene.

Macron is the quintessential cosmopolitan globalist. He studied at the prestigious École Nationale d'Administration, the equivalent of going to an Ivy League school, has worked as an investment banker for Rothschild, been finance minister in Hollande’s government, is a committed European – and, unusually for a French politician, speaks fluent English. He is the candidate that the rest of Europe wants and is supported by the educated mobile young who pursue opportunities in a global arena. If MSNBC could vote, he would be their candidate. Politico has already reported that the Euro “jumped” when Macron’s candidacy became a certainty.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, is a committed nationalist. She wants to tighten borders against terrorists and illegal immigrants, is fervently anti-EU and preaches a form of “economic protectionism.” She wants to hold a referendum on exit from the Eurozone a la Brexit. Her slogan is “In the Name of the People” and she promises to “Put France in Order.” An attack on “savage globalization” is a major campaign theme. She is the candidate of the rust belts of France as well as the rural areas.

Unlike Macron, who was relatively unknown and not experienced in government, she has served in the European Parliament. She has written op-eds that appeared in The New York Times. In 2015, Time magazine named her among its 100 most influential persons. In a twist of irony, the magazine also picked her co-national, the best-selling left economist Thomas Piketty.

Comparisons to Trump make good press but are in many ways off the mark. Le Pen has a law degree, speaks coherently and has well-thought-out programs, whether one agrees with them or not. She also explicitly believes in working with Vladimir Putin.

If Marine Le Pen were elected president of France, the European Union as well as NATO would be seriously weakened. Global stock markets would likely plummet, at least for a bit.

But, I’d contend that Marine Le Pen is not going to win – at least not in 2017. The National Front has the significant negative baggage of xenophobia and anti-Semitism attached to it, thanks to her father. Normalizing the party will take more than a few years. Every second-round electoral poll had her losing to any possible first-round candidate. Macron and Le Pen will take the global versus nationalist conflict into the public sphere.

Social inequality is the big question facing all European politicians. Macron, if elected, will need to find ways to provide opportunities not only for the educated but also for those youth who truly are left behind by globalization and see no future. These are the groups that French geographer Christophe Guilluy identifies as the lost popular classes of La France Périphérique

Both Macron and Le Pen, the outsider candidates, are charismatic figures with prodigious amounts of political talent. The next two weeks are going to be fascinating political theater that will lay bare the major social, economic and cultural fissures in France and Europe.

Even if Le Pen loses, she is not leaving the French political scene anytime soon. Populism in France and in Europe will be with us well into the future.

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