It comes down to the populist versus the globalist.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and center-left candidate Emmanuel Macron have come out on top in the first round of the French presidential elections and will be moving ahead to the final round on May 7. According to French polling firm IPSOS, exit polls show Macron with 23.7 percent followed by Le Pen with 21.7 percent of the vote. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and conservative candidate Francois Fillon tied for third place with about 19.5 percent each.
That Le Pen and Macron are the two front runners moving into round two of the elections represents a remarkable turning point for France. In a stunning rejection of the status quo in French politics, neither of the two mainstream parties — the Socialists on the left nor the Republicans on the right — made it to the final round, a first in France's history.
The results also reveal an electorate starkly divided over the future of France and its place in Europe, as the two victors in this round have polar opposite visions of the future. Quite simply: one vision is closed, one is open. One is nativist, one is worldly.
Le Pen heads the far-right National Front party, which in the past was known largely for its xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and what's scholars have called "soft-core" Holocaust denialism. Le Pen has tried hard to reform the party's image, instead presenting a modern populist vision of France that is avowedly anti-globalization, anti-EU, and anti-immigrant.
Macron, a political neophyte who has never held elected office, represents En Marche, a brand new center-left party. His vision for the future is of a more open, more tolerant, and more inclusive France at the center of a strong European Union.
So in a very real sense, the future of Europe, globalization, and the identity of France itself will be decided in the next round of elections on May 7.
"This is perceived as a turning point election," said Catherine Fieschi, a specialist of populist politics and director of Counterpoint, a political research consultancy in London, as the polls closed. "It says something about the trajectory of Europe: a choice to move forward rather than back. But also, a choice to take France in a different direction: more open rather than closed, turned toward the world — if Macron comes through."
Polls strongly indicate that Macron will triumph over Le Pen in the May 7 runoff election.
But nothing is certain.
The biggest stake in this election is Europe itself
To say this is a referendum on Europe is not an exaggeration.
Le Pen has campaigned on promises of pulling France out of the European Union, the euro common currency market, and possibly even NATO. She has campaigned promising radical reductions in the numbers of immigrants France will accept and, in recent days, has talked of halting all immigration, at least temporarily. She rails against the "twin totalitarianisms" of globalization and "Islamic fundamentalism."
Le Pen is a right-wing populist, and her social welfare ideas sound a lot more like the kinds of thing you'd expect to hear on the left, including keeping the workweek short and lowering the retirement age.
The difference is who she believes should be allowed to enjoy these social welfare benefits. For Le Pen, France is for the French — that is, primarily French nationals and the non-immigrant French population. She has appealed to a swath of French society that feels overlooked and undercut by the European Union and the shift toward globalization, people who have seen their jobs and livelihoods move to other parts of the world.
Europe and other Western democracies are facing "exactly the same question," one French official told me on condition of anonymity. "The lower middle class basically has suffered or believes it has suffered from the globalization, from the crisis of 2008, and they are really basically telling the elites, 'You are not delivering, so we are tossing the table.'"
European leaders fear her. Le Pen has promised to hold a referendum on a "Frexit" — a French exit from the EU like the one Britain is currently working on. And that, the same French official told me, would mean "the end of the EU, and the end of Europe, really."
Macron, on the other hand, is a globalist in every sense of the word. A literal member of the global elite, he graduated from the prestigious French academy that serves as a feeder school for future French leaders and afterward worked at Rothschild, a bank that made him wealthy.
In other words, Macron is Le Pen's opposite. He is a social liberal, a centrist, and an evangelist for liberalizing the French economy. He embraces the European Union with both arms and has criticized both Brexit and Donald Trump — even going as far as to offer safe haven to Americans who find themselves at odds with the Trump administration.
But he is also a completely untried politician. Just 39 years old, he has never held elected office. He is, the French official said, "a fragile candidate."
But, the French official cautioned, that could work to Macron's advantage. "It may work because, in a sense, he looks different. He's not a traditional politician," he said. "In our political system, when you are a candidate it means that you have been around for 30 years, really. We have the minister, prime minister, and so on. It's never seen. In a sense, our election is extremely unusual, totally unusual."
Fear of immigrants and "Islamic radicalism"
It's impossible to ignore the role xenophobia and Islamophobia played in this election.
This was the first election held with France under a state of emergency. Since ISIS-affiliated terrorists attacked Paris in November 2015, the country has been under heightened security measures, and polling stations were guarded across the country. Terrorism fears were heightened yet again on Thursday evening when Karim Cheurfi, a French national with a history of run-ins with the law, killed a police officer in a suspected terror attack on the Champs-Élysées.
After the shooting, Le Pen called the current government "insufficient and weak, and without authority." She added that "because our country is at war, the response must be global, total." That included, in her view, expelling foreign nationals on terror watch lists. Bernard Cazeneuve, the current prime minister, told the press Le Pen was channeling "atrocity as opportunity" and "shamelessly exploit[ing] fear."
In the past week, as poll numbers increasingly showed Macron gaining, she also seemed to double down on her hardline message that France should close its borders to immigrants, legal or illegal, appealing directly to her populist base.
"Will we be able to live much longer as French people in France, while entire neighborhoods are being transformed?" she asked a rally of fervent supporters last week. "It is right for us not to want our country transformed into a mere corridor, a giant railway station."
Le Pen's popularity and the success of her message seemed to have an effect on the race. Early on, in what seemed a bid for FN voters, conservative candidate François Fillon began making strong statements against immigrants and Muslims. "We've got to reduce immigration to its strict minimum," he told a rally last fall. In the same speech, he likened radical Islam to "totalitarianism like the Nazis."
Macron, by contrast, has drawn a clear line between himself and Le Pen's radical views. In their first presidential debate, he declared: "The trap you are falling into, Madame Le Pen, with your provocations, is to divide society." He then accused her of making "enemies out of more than 4 million French men and women whose religion happens to be Islam."
For Macron, the threat against France is not immigration so much as nationalism. He is a realist, which sometimes does not play well with voters. After Thursday's attack, he told the press there was "no such thing as zero risk." On French radio he added, "This threat, this imponderable problem, is part of our daily lives for the years to come. I would like to express all my support for our police forces and more generally the forces of law and order. I am particularly thinking of the victim's family."
It's never been this close
Up until the moment polls closed, it was completely uncertain who the top two candidates would be. France had four top candidates, each of whom had a plausible chance of moving into round two: Le Pen, Macron, the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the conservative candidate François Fillon were all polling within the margin of error.
In modern French history, such a contested race was unheard of, and it is impossible to ignore the sheer numbers voting for populism — on the left and the right.
Voter turnout was at about 70 percent by 5 pm local French time. That level of turnout, or higher, will need to continue for Macron to win in round two. While all projections show him as most likely to triumph over Le Pen on May 7, that could change if her very motivated supporters come out in droves, and if 30 percent of the electorate were to abstain from voting — as some voters indicated they would all spring.
In her victory speech Sunday evening, Le Pen called herself the "candidate of the people."
"You have allowed me to take part in the second round of the presidential campaign, and it is an honor for me. And I accept it with humility and appreciation," she said.
Now I have the immense responsibility to defend the French nation: its unity, its security, its culture, its prosperity, and its independence. The French must seize this historical moment, because after all, what is at stake for this election is wild globalization that endangers our civilization.
Macron, in his victory speech, said, "I will gather people together ... to reconcile our France." He added, "I heard doubts expressed, the fears of the French people, and the desire for change as well."
He promised to be a "president of all the French people, the president of patriots faced with the threat of nationalists. A president who will protect and transform and build. A president who will allow those who want to create, innovate, enterprise, and work to do so more easily and more speedily. A president who helps those who have less."
For their part, other French leaders, including the current prime minister, Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, and Republican candidate Fillon, have already begun to throw their weight behind Macron.
Whether these endorsements will rally enough voters to Macron's camp to beat the rising star of European far-right populism remains to be seen. But one thing's for sure: With the future of France and Europe hanging in the balance, the race is going to be closely watched.