The independent centrist Emmanuel Macron has topped the first round of the French presidential election and will face the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the head-to-head run-off vote.
Macron, 39, a political novice, is the favourite to be elected France’s next president. He is the youngest ever French presidential hopeful and has never run for election before.
After the UK vote to leave the European Union and the US vote for the political novice Donald Trump, the French presidential race is the latest election to shake up establishment politics by kicking out the figures who stood for the status quo.
The historic first-round result marked the rejection of the ruling political class.
It was the first time since the postwar period that the traditional left and right ruling parties were both ejected from the race in the first round.
France’s two political outsiders – the progressive, pro-business and socially liberal Macron and the anti-immigration, anti-EU, far right Le Pen – will face off on 7 May in a vote that will redraw French politics and could define the future direction of Europe.
Socialist prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve led appeals from across the political spectrum to support Macron and block Le Pen, who he said represented “regression and division” for France.
The scandal-hit right wing candidate Francois Fillon, who was knocked out of the race, said he would also vote for Macron because the Front National “has a history known for its violence and intolerance” and its economic and social programme would lead France to bankruptcy.
Macron, a former investment banker, who had been a chief adviser and then economy minister to the Socialist president Francois Hollande, is not a member of any political party.
He quit government last year and launched his own political movement, En Marche! (on the move), that was “neither left nor right”, promising to “revolutionise” what he called France’s vacuous and decaying political system.
Speaking in front of an ecstatic and raucous crowd in Paris, Macron said of his fledgling political movement: “In one year we have changed the face of French political life.”
He said he represented optimism and hope. In a dig at Le Pen, he said he would be a president of patriots against the nationalist threat.
Le Pen’s place in the final round cements her party’s steady rise in French politics. The Front National has made steady gains in every election since she took over leadership from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011.
Le Pen ran a hardline campaign against immigration and promised to crack down on what she called “Islamic fundamentalism”.
While Macron’s supporters at rallies waved EU flags and he hailed the positive role of the 27-country bloc, Le Pen told supporters the EU will die. She wants to leave the euro, return to the franc, exit the Schengen agreement on free movment between EU states and close French borders.
The central message of Le Pen’s campaign was the staple of the Front National party since it was co-founded by her father in 1972: keeping France for the French.
Le Pen promised to give priority to French people over non-nationals in jobs, housing and welfare, and would hold a referendum to cement this policy into the constitution. She said she would demand extra tax from companies that employed any kind of foreign worker.
In the final days of the first round campaign, she promised to immediately suspend all legal immigration in order to assess what she called the “uncontrollable situation” of foreigners coming into France.
She promised a ban on religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, from all public places.
Both the rightwing Les Républicains party and the ruling leftwing Socialists, which have dominated government and French politics for decades, were knocked out of the race. They managed to take only around 25% of the vote between them.
The Macron-Le Pen final marks a redrawing of the political divide, away from the old left-right divide towards a contest between a liberal, pro-globalisation stance and “close the borders” nationalism.
As the geographer Christophe Guilluy has noted: “The rift between the global market’s winners and losers has replaced the old right-left split.”
Whoever wins the Macron-Le Pen race, the parliamentary elections that follow in June will be crucial.
The majority in the lower house will determine how a new president could govern, and France is likely to require a new form of coalition politics.
If elected president, Macron, fielding MP candidates from his fledgling movement, would have to seek a new kind of parliamentary majority across the centre left-right divide.
If Le Pen did win the presidency, she would very probably not win a parliament majority, thwarting her ability to govern.
But her party hopes to increase its MPs in the 577-seat house. Currently Le Pen has only two MPs.
Hollande’s troubled five-year term left France struggling with mass unemployment, a sluggish economy and disillusionment with the political class.
The country is more divided than ever. More than 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in little more than two years, as the political class questions Islam’s place in French society, and more than 3 million people are unemployed.