PARIS (AFP) — Pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron resoundingly won France’s landmark presidential election on Sunday, first estimates showed, defeating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a pivotal vote for the future of the divided country and Europe.
At 39, the former investment banker will be the country’s youngest-ever leader and faces a huge challenge to heal a fractured and demoralized country.
The vicious election campaign has exposed deep economic and social divisions, as well as tensions around identity and immigration.
“A new chapter in our long history begins tonight. I want it to be one of hope and renewed confidence,” Macron told AFP in a call shortly after results were released.
Initial estimates showed Macron winning between 65 percent and 66.1 percent of the ballots — a higher than expected score – and Le Pen scoring between 33.9 percent and 35 percent.
Unknown three years ago, Macron is now poised to become one of Europe’s most powerful leaders, bringing with him a hugely ambitious agenda of political and economic reform for France and the European Union.
The result will resonate worldwide and particularly in Brussels and Berlin where leaders will breathe a sigh of relief that Le Pen’s anti-EU, anti-globalization program has been defeated.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said it was a “victory for a strong and united Europe”, while EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said French voters had chosen a “European future.”
After Britain’s vote last year to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the French election had been widely watched as a test of how high a tide of right-wing nationalism would rise.
“France is sending… an incredible message of hope to the world,” veteran centrist Francois Bayrou, an ally of Macron, told France 2 television. “Anyone who bet on this has probably made a fortune.”
Le Pen, 48, had portrayed the ballot as a contest between Macron and the “globalists” — in favor of open trade, immigration and shared sovereignty — and her “patriotic” vision of strong borders and national identities.
In a short statement, Le Pen said she had called Macron to wish him “success” in tackling the “huge challenges” he faced and announced that she would lead the FN into June’s parliamentary elections.
Major obstacles ahead
Macron will now face huge challenges as he attempts to enact his domestic agenda of cutting state spending, easing labor laws, boosting education in deprived areas and extending new protections to the self-employed.
The philosophy and literature lover is inexperienced, has no political party and must try to fashion a working parliamentary majority after legislative elections next month.
His En Marche movement — “neither of the left, nor right” — has vowed to field candidates in all 577 constituencies, with half of them women and half of them newcomers to politics.
“In order for us to act, we will need a majority in the National Assembly,” the secretary general of En Marche, Richard Ferrand, told the TF1 channel, adding that only “half of the journey” had been completed.
Many analysts are skeptical about Macron’s ability to win a majority with En Marche candidates alone, meaning he might have to form a coalition of lawmakers committed to his agenda.
Furthermore, his economic agenda, particularly plans to weaken labour regulations to fight stubbornly high unemployment, are likely to face fierce resistance from trade unions and his leftist opponents.
He also inherits a country which is still in a state of emergency following a string of Islamist-inspired attacks since 2015 that have killed more than 230 people.
The vote Sunday followed one of the most unpredictable election campaigns in modern history marked by scandal, repeated surprises and a last-minute hacking attack on Macron.
Hundreds of thousands of emails and documents stolen from his campaign were dumped online on Friday and then spread by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, leading the candidate to call it an attempt at “democratic destabilization.”
France’s election authority said publishing the documents could be a criminal offence, a warning flouted by Macron’s opponents and far-right activists online.
It was the latest twist in an election that has consistently wrong-footed observers as angry voters chose to eject establishment figures, including one-time favorite Francois Fillon, a right-wing ex-prime minister.
Unpopular President Francois Hollande was the first to bow to the rebellious mood in December as he declared he would be the first sitting president not to seek re-election in the French republic, founded in 1958.
In the first round of the presidential election on April 23, Macron topped the vote with 24.01 percent, followed by Le Pen on 21.30 percent, in a crowded field of 11 candidates.
The results revealed Macron was favored among wealthier, better educated citizens in cities, while Le Pen drew support in the countryside as well as poverty-hit areas in the south and rustbelt northeast.