France’s mainstream politicians unite to back Macron over Le Pen

The most high-profile mainstream endorsement for the centrist candidate came from president Francois Hollande, who cited 'the risk for our country’s future' if the far-right Marine Le Pen won.

French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron waves before addressing supporters at his election day headquarters in Paris on April 23, 2017, while far-right candidate Marine Le Pen waves at supporters after delivering a speech in Bordeaux on April 2, 2017. Christophe Ena / Bob Edme / AP Photo
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PARIS // France’s mainstream politicians, shut out of the presidency by an angry electorate, united on Monday to call on voters to back centrist Emmanuel Macron and reject Marine Le Pen’s populist nationalism.

Politicians on the moderate left and right, including the Socialist and Republicans party losers in Sunday’s first-round vote, manoeuvred to block Ms Le Pen’s path to power in the May 7 run-off.

The most high-profile mainstream endorsement for Mr Macron came from president Francois Hollande, who cited “the risk for our country’s future” if Ms Le Pen won.

In a televised statement, the Socialist leader said France risked “becoming isolated and breaking away from the European Union” if the far-right, anti-EU Ms Le Pen were elected.

A far-right victory would also “deeply divide France” at a time when it needed to show “solidarity and cohesion” in the face of terrorism, he added.

“Faced with such a risk it is impossible to remain silent or indifferent,” he said. “For my part, I will vote for Emmanuel Macron.”

Mr Macron was Mr Hollande’s economy minister from 2014 to 2016 when he quit to form his own centrist movement En Marche. His former boss’ endorsement may not mean much to the french electorate though – Mr Hollande is the most unpopular in modern French record-keeping.

Voters narrowed the presidential field from 11 to two on Sunday in an election widely seen as a litmus test for the populist wave that last year prompted Britain to vote to leave the European Union and US voters to elect Donald Trump president.

The defeated far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, pointedly refused to back Mr Macron, and Ms Le Pen’s Front National is hoping to do the once unthinkable and peel away far-left voters historically opposed to a party long tainted by racism and anti-Semitism.

“The voters who voted for Mr Melenchon are angry voters. They can be in agreement with us,” said Front National vice president Steeve Brios.

Ms Le Pen announced on Monday night that she was temporarily stepping down as head of the Front National.

The move appeared to be a way for her to embrace a wide range of potential voters ahead of the run-off on May 7.

“Tonight, I am no longer the president of the Front National. I am the presidential candidate,” she said on French public television news.

Choosing from inside the system is no longer an option for France’s electorate come May 7. Voters rejected the two mainstream parties that have alternated power for decades, in favour of Ms Le Pen and the untested Mr Macron, who has never held elected office and who founded his own political movement just last year.

Turnout was 78 per cent, down slightly from the 79 per cent turnout in the first round of presidential voting in 2012.

Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, whose party holds a majority in the legislature, got just 6 per cent.

“We are in a phase of decomposition, demolition, deconstruction,” former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls said. “We didn’t do the work – intellectual, ideological and political – on what the left is, and we paid the price.”

Francois Fillon, the scandal-plagued conservative Republicans candidate, fared marginally better, coming in third with just shy of 20 per cent of the vote.

Both the centre-right and centre-left fell in behind Mr Macron, whose optimistic vision of a tolerant France and a united Europe with open borders is a stark contrast to Ms Le Pen’s darker, inward-looking “French-first” platform that calls for closed borders, tougher security, less immigration and dropping the shared euro currency to return to the French franc.

Ms Le Pen went on the offensive against Mr Macron in her first public comments on Monday.

“He is a hysterical, radical ‘Europeanist’,” she said. “He is for total open borders. He says there is no such thing as French culture. There is not one domain that he shows one ounce of patriotism.”

European stock markets surged, and France’s main index hit its highest level since early 2008, as investors gambled that the rise of populism around the world – and the associated potential unpredictability in policymaking – may have peaked.

German chancellor Angela Merkel wished Mr Macron “all the best for the next two weeks”.

Mrs Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, tweeted that “the result for Emmanuel Macron shows: France AND Europe can win together! The centre is stronger than the populists think!”.

Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, made it to the second round against Jacques Chirac in 2002 and was crushed in the run-off. Many commentators expect the same fate for his daughter, but she has already drawn far more support than he ever did and transformed the party’s once-pariah image.

Mr Chirac refused to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen on principle, while Mr Macron has already agreed to share a stage with his daughter.

* Associated Press, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse