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FRANCE REJECTS POPULISM

Newcomer centrist Emmanuel Macron wins French runoff election in landslide

Newcomer Emmanuel Macron wins French election in landslide rejection of populism

Centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in a landslide victory for France’s presidency Sunday. Macron’s win in the runoff election, by a wider margin than previous polls indicated, reveals a rebuke of the nationalist, populist threats sweeping France, Europe, and other places in the world.

For the first time in France’s recent history, neither candidate belonged to the country’s establishment political parties, with Macron running under the banner of a party he founded, En Marche! (meaning “Onward!” in English), and Le Pen representing the fringe National Front.

Supporters of France’s participation in the European Union breathed a sigh of relief with Macron’s victory, which made him the youngest president in France’s history. After his win, the euro hit a six-month high against the dollar. As the EU-friendly, pro-business candidate, Macron has aspirations to drastically rewrite France’s 3,000-page labor code and lower the corporate tax rate from 33 percent to 25. Le Pen, however, threatened to leave the EU, starting by renegotiating France’s use of the euro as its currency.

“I know why some have chosen to vote for an extreme party,” Macron said in a speech to his supporters Sunday evening. “I know the anger, the anxiety.” The mood was more serious than after a jubilant first-round victory, with the new president vowing to “defend France, its vital interests, its image.”

The 39-year-old Macron has tried to distance himself from both the country’s left and right. Once an investment banker with Rothschild & Co., he served as finance minister to President François Hollande, the socialist currently in power at the Élysée Palace, although he has little other political experience. 

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen looks down after her speech at her election day headquarters Sunday, May 7, 2017 in Paris.

Meanwhile, Le Pen told her supporters during a concession speech that the National Front needed a new start. “The National Front … must deeply renew itself in order to rise to the historic opportunity and meet the French people’s expectations,” she said. During her campaign, Le Pen vowed to drastically restrict immigration, eradicate welfare benefits for immigrants, and strip French Muslims of dual citizenship. She has also often linked immigration to terrorism.

With varying degrees of success, Le Pen has tried to redefine the National Front, which has a long history of anti-Semitism and racism. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who advanced to the second round of the French presidential election in 2002, is a convicted Holocaust denier. And while Le Pen has managed to distance her father from her version of the party, largely by expelling him, she’s continued to put forth a revisionist history of France’s participation in the Holocaust during this year’s campaign — that the French weren’t responsible for the roundup and eventual murder of French Jews in collaboration with the Nazis. A member of the National Front’s leadership resigned at the end of April after coming under fire for denying the Nazis’ use of Zyklon B to murder Jews.

After a tight first round of the election, which saw 11 candidates vying for votes, Macron and Le Pen emerged as the victors for a runoff election Sunday. Turnout was expected to be historically low, though, with many voters feeling alienated by the choice of these two candidates.

“Well, I don’t feel anything because I’m not going to vote,” a Paris resident told the New York Times. “There is no choice.” Macron’s camp had trouble winning over the country’s left, which had supported the communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round.

Voter turnout at 5 p.m. local time was at 65 percent, down from 72 percent in 2012, and a record number of blank or spoiled ballots were cast. Yet the results so far are the strongest for the National Front in a presidential election.

It’s clear, however, who Russia supported in this race. The Russian press has repeatedly smeared Macron, forcing him to defuse rumors that he’d had an affair with the head of French state radio. As a result, his camp has accused President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin of interfering with the election.

Le Pen, on the other hand, met with Putin in the weeks leading up to the election. She’s been open about her admiration for the Russian leader and vowed to cancel French sanctions on Russia if elected. Russia has financed the National Front in the past, and Le Pen has come under scrutiny for taking out a substantial loan — of some $11 million — from a Moscow-based bank.

In an eleventh-hour attempt to derail the election, hackers posted some nine gigabytes of emails from Macron’s camp minutes before the start of the country’s 48-hour media blackout leading up to the vote. According to cybersecurity experts, the hackers seem to be the same Russians who hacked the Democratic National Committee email servers leading up to the 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S.

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