PARIS — Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old centrist whose insurgent independent candidacy took millions of his compatriots by surprise, was elected president of France on Sunday, defeating far-right leader Marine Le Pen with a projected 65.8% of votes. Le Pen got 34.9%, according to projections.
Macron’s victory capped a tumultuous race that shook up the country’s political landscape, and could prove decisive for the fate of the European Union in the post-Brexit era.
Against the backdrop of a surge in populism around the world, which resulted in the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S., the French election was carefully watched by international observers who feared France would follow the same path by voting for Le Pen, who embraced an anti-E.U., anti-immigrant, protectionist platform.
Although Macron has never been elected to public office, his victory has been perceived as the best-case scenario by mainstream media outlets, as well as civil-rights organizations and financial markets.
Earlier this week, Macron was endorsed by former U.S. President Barack Obama. Macron “has stood up for liberal values, he put forward a vision for the important role that France plays in Europe and around the world, and he is committed to a better future for the French people,” Obama said in a recorded video which went viral.
“The French election is very important to the future of France and the values that we care so much about. Because the success of France matters to the entire world,” Obama said.
Trump, who had tacitly endorsed Le Pen during the campaign, took to Twitter to congratulate Macron on “his big win” Sunday and said he looked “very much forward to working with him!”
British Prime Minister Theresa May also congratulated Macron. “France is one of our closest allies, and we look forward to working with the new president on a wide range of shared priorities,” May said in a statement.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman called the outcome “a victory for a strong united Europe and for the Franco-German friendship.”
The election marked a milestone since it featured two runoff candidates who did not belong to either of the two main parties that have dominated French political life for more than half a century.
Macron’s immediate challenge will be to build a parliamentary majority for his party, En Marche!, which was recently launched and has no representation in parliament.
The last week of the campaign was marked by a heated and bitter televised debate between Macron and Le Pen, whose aggressive personal attacks and alleged attempts to spread “fake news” sparked parodies on social media and a defamation lawsuit filed by Macron the following day. Le Pen went as far as to suggest that Macron possibly had an offshore bank account in the Bahamas. And over the weekend, the En Marche! movement claimed it had been the victim of a “massive and coordinated hack.”
It was the first time that a far-right presidential candidate had participated in a runoff debate, and many observers concluded that Le Pen had failed to rise up to the challenge and didn’t look “presidential” enough. Macron won the debate, according to 63% of people who were surveyed by Elabe pollsters for BFM TV. But some French journalists were quick to point out that Hillary Clinton was also seen to have won three presidential debates before losing the election to Donald Trump.
Even though Le Pen lost the election, her final score of 34.9% and the mainstream coverage she garnered during her campaign propelled the once-shunned National Front party to the forefront of France’s political landscape. Her performance also underscores the fact that she has successfully rebranded the party, which has xenophobic, anti-Semitic and racist roots, as a nationalistic/patriotic party.
In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, who once described the Holocaust as a “detail of history,” qualified for the second round of the presidential election, it sparked outrage across France. His rival, Jacques Chirac, the Republican candidate, ended up winning the election by a landslide with 82.1%.
To the eyes of the French entertainment world, Macron’s win – and especially Le Pen’s defeat – is largely welcome news.
Although her program barely touched on culture, she had said she would replace France’s anti-piracy law with a global license, which opponents said would legalize piracy as well as jeopardize territorial licensing and French financing schemes.
France’s creative community also feared that Le Pen would try to suppress cultural content deemed too liberal, and would create an ultra-conservative atmosphere that led to censorship or even self-censorship. Le Pen was also keen to rein in the press, calling for a “creation of a code of conduct for journalists.”
Macron is said to hold progressive values that are more in tune with French cultural communities, especially in the film industry. While serving as minister of the economy in current President Francois Hollande’s government, Macron helped create and promote French Tech, a cluster of French digital startups. Macron has also pledged to create a “cultural pass,” worth 500 euros ($542), that would be given to French residents on their 18th birthday, to encourage young people to attend cultural events in France. The pass would be partly financed by a tax levied on Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple.
Although Macron was privately supported by many in the entertainment industry, he received only a handful of public endorsements from French stars and industry figures, notably “Valerian” director and producer Luc Besson, who penned a letter calling Le Pen “a scammer.” Claude Lelouch, Dany Boon and professional soccer player Zinedine Zidane also endorsed Macron, as did all major film guilds, notably the ARP, which represents authors, directors and producers.