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The French Election Results Aren't as Clear as They Seem

Marine Le Pen was soundly defeated, but the shape of France’s new government is far from settled.

France's new president Emmanuel Macron at a victory rally in Paris last night. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Sunday’s French presidential elections produced a practically audible international sigh of relief from just about everyone outside the far right. Voters overwhelmingly rejected hard-right veteran Marine Le Pen in favor of centrist Emmanuel Macron, who received 65 percent of the vote. A quick glance at the results mapped across the country reveals that rather than highlighting striking regional disparities, Le Pen came second in the two-horse race in all but two regions, only one of which gave her a majority surpassing 5 percent.

In a time of dramatic, applecart-upsetting votes—the American and Austrian presidential elections, the Dutch general elections and the Brexit referendum—this might come as a surprise. Media watchers have gotten used to stark voting maps that highlight many Western countries’ internal divisions, especially the urban-rural split. So why didn’t France conform to pattern?

Part of the reason is that attempts by Marine Le Pen’s National Front to present itself as the party of fresh, untried, anti-elite outsiders have been mocked widely. Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie, who preceded her as FN leader, have been high profile fixtures in the French political media since the 1980s. Le Pen came already burdened with a bulging portfolio of past racist comments that gave her an uphill struggle from the beginning, making it that much harder for her to cast herself as an unsullied champion of the disaffected voter.

But just because France’s election failed to highlight clear geographical divides, that doesn’t mean these divides don’t exist. Indeed, the immediate aftermath of the vote has been greeted with a struggle to work out who voted for whom. An easy assumption was that Le Pen scored well with older conservatives, but that doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny. The survey below, for example, suggests that Le Pen’s vote share was strongest among the youngest voters, earning 44 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old voting bloc.  

This opinion poll contradicts that, however, placing Le Pen’s highest polling numbers among the 35-to-49 group.

What both polls make clear—beyond Macron’s decisive victory in all age groups—is that the oldest segment of France’s electorate was actually the least sold on Le Pen. One explanation for this, still embryonic, is that a generation old enough to remember the consequences of fascism for France is likely to be more consistently inoculated against the appeal of the far right.

Still, the shape of French politics isn’t settled yet. There’s one more set of elections coming up next month, this one for legislative seats. Macron’s presidential win may be resounding, but he heads En Marche!, a year-old party that holds no seats in the chamber so far. En Marche! might well win big on Macron’s coattails, capitalizing on the recent decimation of France’s ruling socialist party (which Macron belonged to until recently). But following a presidential election in which previously dominant parties were pushed aside as much due to problems with their candidates as with policy, it’s still too early to work out what sort of government Macron will be able to create and exactly who his opponents will be. The picture following France’s presidential elections may still be a little fuzzy, but right now that fuzzy picture may well be an accurate mirror of the state of France.

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