Macron, Le Pen Outcome in France Offers Encouragement for EU

By Marcus Walker Features Dow Jones Newswires

The first-round results of France's presidential election on Sunday offered encouragement for the European Union but warnings for the established center-right and center-left parties that have dominated Europe's politics for decades.

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The EU's favored candidate, Emmanuel Macron, won the first round with 23.9% of the vote, according an official tally of 96% of votes, ahead of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, with 21.4%. They will face off in the final round on May 7.

Opinion polls for the final, head-to-head contest have been far more decisive than for Sunday's fragmented, multicandidate vote. Surveys up until last week consistently showed Mr. Macron beating Ms. Le Pen by 20 percentage points or more in a one-on-one duel.

Still, the outcome triggers alarms for Europe's established parties on the center-right and center-left. France's long-dominant Socialists and conservatives failed to reach the runoff -- an outcome that leaves both parties in crisis. Mr. Macron, a centrist with an eclectic policy platform, has no conventional party behind him.

Victory for Mr. Macron, 39 years old and a staunch EU supporter, would strengthen the conviction of Europe's mainstream politicians that they can beat back the challenge from anti-EU nationalists such as Ms. Le Pen.

"A Macron presidency would change the narrative for the European Union, feeding the perception that we are past peak populism," said Nicolas Veron, a French economist and fellow at Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. "Lower political uncertainty could also help economic growth in the eurozone."

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After a year of political shocks, however, few incumbents in Europe's capitals will rest easy until the contest is over. And Ms. Le Pen still has a shot at power. Her pledges to disband the euro and dilute the EU would undo decades of efforts to unite Europe politically and economically. Her foreign-policy views, including her closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, would call into question France's commitment to its security alliance with Western powers such as the U.S. and Germany.

A Le Pen presidency would deliver the third blow within a year to the integrated, liberal-internationalist order of the Western world, following the U.K.'s referendum vote last summer to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump in the fall as U.S. president on a nationalist, populist platform.

More recently, the tide in parts of Europe has turned in favor of centrist politicians who support the EU and multilateral cooperation.

Nationalist parties fell short of their ambitions in recent Dutch and Austrian elections. In Germany, where parliamentary elections are due in September, traditional parties are dominating the race while a nationalist upstart group is mired in internal squabbles.

Many political scientists warn that the decline of established parties is a long-term phenomenon, however, and that antiestablishment populists such as Ms. Le Pen aren't going away.

In the runoff, most observers expect French voters from a broad swath of the political spectrum to rally behind Mr. Macron in order to block the radical challenge from the far right.

On Sunday, defeated candidates, including conservative François Fillon and Socialist Benoit Hamon, asked their voters to support Mr. Macron.

One factor is the euro. Surveys suggest a large majority of French voters want to keep the currency, rather than return to the French franc as Ms. Le Pen proposes.

Mr. Macron is an ardent supporter of the EU, but also argues that the bloc and the euro need growth-friendly overhauls.

To persuade a skeptical Germany, however, he may first have to deliver on his promise to reform France's sluggish economy.

The contest between the 39-year-old pro-EU centrist Mr. Macron and the 48-year-old Ms. Le Pen is "incredibly binary," says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris think tank. "On the one hand, you have a potential for a revitalization of the EU. On the other hand, complete and utter destruction of the EU. There is very little in between."

In neighboring Germany -- France's main partner in driving European integration since the 1950s -- ruling politicians made no secret on Sunday that they hope Mr. Macron wins. "All the best for the next two weeks," Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said in a tweet directed at Mr. Macron.

"Macron is clearly the most pro-EU candidate and the most supportive of Franco-German cooperation," said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

If Mr. Macron wins, Germany will hope he can also form an alliance in parliament that allows him to enact economic overhauls, Mr. Perthes says.

The contest between centrists and populists over France's future will only conclude with June's elections for the national legislature.

Write to Marcus Walker at marcus.walker@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 23, 2017 20:30 ET (00:30 GMT)