“The French ended up turning the table over yesterday, but without breaking the crockery.”
This is how the Editor-in-Chief of one regional newspaper, La Voix du Nord, described the first round of the presidential election, which saw centrist Emmanuel Macron finish first, above far-right Marine Le Pen. He is now widely expected to beat Le Pen in the run-off in a fortnight’s time and become France’s next president.
It is easy to look at Macron’s résumé and policies and conclude he is an ‘establishment’ politician. He trained at France’s prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, before becoming an investment banker at Rothschild and later a minister under François Hollande. Unlike the populist left and right he favours closer links with Germany and liberalising economic reforms.
Yet like Le Pen he has succeeded in presenting himself as an outsider who can shake things up. He has risen to the cusp of the presidency despite having never been elected before. Rather than standing within an existing party, he formed a political movement, En Marche!, which aims to bypass the party system, and attract people and use ideas from both left and right.
I spent some time with Macron supporters in Lens, a town in the north-east Pas-de-Calais region. It has the sleepy atmosphere of somewhere which has perhaps seen better days. Visitors are greeted by a hollowed-out former cinema opposite the train station which now looks like a stage prop.
On Sunday, far-right Marine Le Pen took 37 percent of the town’s votes, far ahead of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with 23 percent, Emmanuel Macron, with 17 percent, and François Fillon, with 10 percent.
Pas-de-Calais is on the frontline of the convulsions in French politics. It has historically been a Socialist stronghold, but with one of the highest rates of unemployment in mainland France (at 12.2 percent) it has become fertile ground for Le Pen’s Front National party.
Can Macron offer a popular, alternative vision to areas like these? As president will he be able to stem the support for the far-right in less privileged areas of France?
Traditionally on the centre-right, Josette Dautriche became disillusioned after Nicolas Sarkozy tacked to the hard right in his failed bid to get re-elected as president in 2012 as he tried to attract supporters of Le Pen by talking tough on immigration.
“I didn’t recognise myself at all anymore in any politician,” she tells me. When Macron came to prominence, she realised she shared his ideas.
Another volunteer was previously on the centre-right as well, but others used to back the Socialists or the Greens.
Dautriche was partly compelled to campaign for Macron out of fear of Marine Le Pen becoming president: “If you want to stop the Front National, you have to be on the ground and fight.”
Unlike Macron, Le Pen is a career politician. She worked her way up through the party her father founded, the Front National, and is currently an MEP and a regional councillor.
Josette Dautriche, second from right, and Marie-Christine Playe, third from right, with other supporters
Dautriche and another volunteer, Marie-Christine Playe, believes the rise of the far-right is linked to unemployment in the region.
Playe has Front National-supporting cousins. She tells me: “We do not like Marine Le Pen – we hate her – but the people who vote for her, we say they are our people, they are the people from our family.”
The pair believe Macron’s policies can help the region.
Dautriche thinks tradesmen and shopkeepers find it difficult to employ people because regulations are too rigid and expensive: it is necessary to “liberate work, liberate business”. She tells me Macron supports this while also saying “we cannot leave people by the side of the road”.
What seems to motivate the supporters I met the most is the idea that Macron will offer “a renewal of political life”, breaking through a system seen as inaccessible, corrupt and inefficient.
François Fillon, the defeated candidate for the right-wing Republicans, was elected in that party’s primaries after talking about the need to be clean in politics. This was a way to differentiate himself from Nicolas Sarkozy, who was also standing and has been dogged by corruption allegations.
Yet since then Fillon has himself been put under investigation in a ‘fake jobs’ scandal.
Dautriche says that police officers are expected to have a blank criminal record and likewise politicians who are convicted of a crime should not return to politics.
She believes citizens have been locked out of politics, but “Macron, he wants to blow up the barriers”. She likes his intention to stand candidates from a non-political background under the En Marche! banner in June’s legislative elections. He also wants an even split of men and women from the movement in parliament.
For another volunteer, Marie-Christine Playe: “It’s the first time you have someone who says ‘I want people who are new to everything.’”
Macron has inspired many who are fed up with traditional party politics. If he becomes president he will have to live up to their expectations. As one man told me at a Macron supporters’ party on Sunday: “The people are waiting.”