PARIS – French voters shut out the political mainstream from the presidency for the first time in modern history, and on Monday found themselves being courted for the runoff election between populist Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron.
French politicians on the moderate left and right, including the Socialist and Republicans party losers in Sunday’s vote, immediately urged voters to block Le Pen’s path to power in the May 7 contest.
Voters narrowed the presidential field from 11 to two. Both that vote and the May 7 runoff are widely seen as a litmus test for the populist wave that last year prompted Britain to vote to leave the European Union and America to elect Donald Trump president.
The defeated far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, pointedly refused to back Macron, and Le Pen’s National Front is hoping to do the once unthinkable and peel away 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,” Steeve Brios, a vice president of Le Pen’s National Front party, told The Associated Press. He said they express a choice “outside the system.”
Choosing from inside the system is no longer an option. Voters rejected the two mainstream parties that have alternated power for decades, in favor of Le Pen and the untested Macron , who has never held elected office and who founded his own political movement just last year. Turnout was 78 percent, down slightly from 79 percent in the first round of presidential voting in 2012.
Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, whose party holds a majority in the legislature, got just 6 percent. Socialist President Francois Hollande is the most unpopular in modern French record-keeping. He did not seek re-election.
“We are in a phase of decomposition, demolition, deconstruction,” said former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls. “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 percent of the vote.
Both center-right and center-left fell in behind Macron, whose optimistic vision of a tolerant France and a united Europe with open borders is a stark contrast to 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. Le Pen on Monday called her opponent “weak” against Islamic terrorism.
European stock markets surged as investors welcomed the first-round results, with Macron favored to win. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wished Macron “all the best for the next two weeks.”
Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, tweeted that “the result for Emmanuel Macron shows: France AND Europe can win together! The center is stronger than the populists think!”
Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, made it to the second round against Jacques Chirac in 2002 and was crushed in the runoff. Many commentators expect the same fate for his daughter, but she has already drawn far more support than he ever did and she has transformed the party’s once-pariah image.
Chirac refused to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen on principle; Macron has already agreed to share a stage with his daughter.
Le Pen offers an alternative for anyone skeptical of the European Union and France’s role in it, said Louis Aliot, the vice president of the National Front party.
“I’m not convinced that the French are willing to sign a blank check to Mr. Macron,” he said.
But Macron’s party spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, said the far-right candidate is hardly a vector of change.
“She’s been in the political system for 30 years. She inherited her father’s party and we will undoubtedly have Le Pens running for the next 20 years, because after we had the father, we have the daughter and we will doubtless have the niece,” he said. “So she is in a truly bad position to be talking about the elites and the people.”
Macron came in first in Sunday’s vote, with just over 23 percent; Le Pen had 21 percent; Melenchon and Fillon each had 19 percent. Fillon, a former prime minister, bested the former Trotskyist Melenchon by just 94,998 votes.
Protesters overnight burned cars, danced around bonfires and dodged riot police at the Place de la Bastille and Republique. Twenty-nine people were detained at the Bastille, where protesters waved red flags and sang “No Marine and No Macron!” in anger at the results.
Ganley reported from Henin-Beaumont. Lori Hinnant and Thomas Adamson contributed from Paris.