Front pages of various US newspapers reporting on the French presidential election are viewed April 24, 2017, in Washington, DC. The battle to become France’s president comes down to a clash of two visions — Emmanuel Macron is pro-globalisation and pro-EU, while Marine Le Pen rages against both. As the rival camps celebrated reaching the decisive second round of the election, Le Pen said Sunday that voters will have “a very simple choice” on May 7. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS
The battle to become France’s next president boils down to a sharp clash of contrasting visions.
In one corner is centrist Emmanuel Macron, with his pro-globalisation, pro-EU world view.
In the other, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who champions “nationalism” and a “France-first” approach.
“The country Mr Macron wants is no longer France, it’s a space, a wasteland, a trading room where there are only consumers and producers,” Le Pen told thousands of supporters at a recent meeting in Nice.
Macron has a starkly different message: “I will be… the voice of hope for our country and for Europe,” he said after the April 23 first-round vote.
Le Pen and Macron, who says he is “neither of the left nor the right”, eliminated France’s traditional political forces to reach the May 7 run-off.
The 39-year-old former investment banker, who had never before stood for election, started his centrist movement only 12 months ago but is now on the cusp of becoming France’s youngest-ever president.
Despite his lack of political experience, polls currently suggest he should beat Le Pen by around 20 percentage points.
President Francois Hollande launched Macron’s political career, picking him as an economic advisor and then parachuting him into his Socialist government as economy minister.
Sensing a worldwide shift away from established parties, Macron turned his back on Hollande and quit the cabinet last August to concentrate on building his own centrist political movement “En Marche” (On the Move).
Since then, he has amassed over 250,000 members and confounded critics who said his appeal would not reach beyond young, urban professionals.
In politics as well as his personal life, Macron has broken traditions.
The theatre and poetry lover from a middle-class family in Amiens, northeast France, fell for his secondary school drama teacher, Brigitte Trogneux.
A 64-year-old mother-of-three, a quarter of a century older than Macron, she left her husband and married the young prodigy in 2007.
The unshakeable confidence with which Macron pursued Brigitte has been evident throughout his career.
But it nearly tripped him up after he finished top in the first round, when he gave what many saw as a triumphalist speech and then held a party at a Paris bistro.
Opponents and allies were quick to remind him that victory was not assured, and he threw himself into campaigning.
– Hard-edged politics –
Unlike Macron, 48-year-old Le Pen is steeped in hard-edged politics.
Her pugnacious father Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the run-off of the 2002 presidential election, but was soundly beaten by the centre-right Jacques Chirac.
Fifteen years later, his gravel-voiced daughter believes she can become France’s first woman president, and the first from the National Front (FN) party that her father founded.
She faces an uphill task as her younger rival appears to attract a broader spectrum of voters.
She also goes into the run-off with several investigations hanging over the FN and her entourage for alleged funding scandals, while she is also being probed after tweeting pictures of Islamic State jihadists’ atrocities.
In the last presidential election in 2012, Le Pen finished third with just under 18 percent. She has tried to portray the 2017 contest as “David against Goliath”.
She has worked assiduously to try to rid the party of its more extreme edge — and kicked her father out of it after he repeatedly described Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history”.
Over the past six years, Le Pen’s rebranded “party of patriots” has been propelled by the anti-globalisation, anti-establishment fury that drove Britain’s vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s election in the United States.
Now a twice-divorced mother of three, she guards her private life jealously, in contrast to Macron.
She appears rarely as a couple with her current partner, the FN’s vice-president Louis Aliot.
Le Pen developed her flair for sharp putdowns as a state-appointed lawyer defending illegal immigrants facing deportation.
Despite that experience she blames migration — and the European Union — for France’s economic woes.