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French political establishment unites against Le Pen as she faces uphill battle for presidency

April 24, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Voters went to the polls yesterday in France, the first of two rounds to elect a new president. The field was winnowed to two candidates, neither from the establishment political parties that have governed France for decades.

It sets up a May 7 tete-a-tete run-off between a centrist newcomer and the face of the far right.

From Paris, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The two candidates still standing emerged this morning to crowds of supporters, centrist Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. She fired the first broadside in the northern town of Rouvroy.

MARINE LE PEN, French Presidential Candidate (through interpreter): The reality is that Mr. Macron is not a patriot in any way at all. He is a hysterical, radical Europeanist. He is for total open borders.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Sunday’s opening round saw a 78 percent turnout. Macron won 24 percent of the vote. Le Pen followed with 21 percent, while conservative Francois Fillon finished with 20 percent. And far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon had 19.

This was the scene last night in Paris as news of Macron’s first-place finish reached his supporters. And this was the countdown to the final round in Le Pen’s headquarters in the Northern French rust belt town of Henin-Beaumont.

National Front supporters had been expecting her to take first place, and hid their disappointment, chanting, “We will win.”

WOMAN (through interpreter): It’s the mobilization of the people. She’s been fighting for the same cause for years, defending the people. Marine will be president.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Several times, the Front supporters burst into “The Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.

Campaign staffer Mikael Sala resents accusations that the party is racist and insists that Le Pen can be president for French people of all ethnicities.

MIKAEL SALA, National Front Campaign Staffer: Wherever you come from, she’s said a zillion times that she considers every French woman, every French man as being equal.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But political analyst Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer believes that Le Pen has progressed as far as she can go.

ALEXANDRA DE HOOP SCHEFFER, The German Marshall Fund of the United States: People realize that in the Brexit, post-Trump election context, probably, they won’t want to follow that trend. And Macron has a smart way of portraying his mission, which is to show that France is a contrarian.

MALCOLM BRABANT: She supports the popular thesis that Macron will probably win the second round with about 60 percent of the vote.

Marine Le Pen’s success may have ended decades of political domination by the traditional parties of the left and right. But France’s political establishment is in a vengeful mood. The leadership of both the Republican and the Socialist parties have described her candidacy as destructive and have encouraged their supporters to vote for Emmanuel Macron.

Sitting President Francois Hollande, whose Socialist Party had a disastrous showing, was one of those voices.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, France (through interpreter): There is a clear choice. Emmanuel Macron is the candidate who enables the French people to come together at this moment, which is so unusual, so serious.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Meanwhile, European financial markets surged with the news that Macron, who opposes withdrawal from the European Union, had come out on top.

Still, the vice president of Le Pen’s party, Steeve Briois, is convinced that Le Pen will pick up working-class support from the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

STEEVE BRIOIS, Vice President, National Front (through interpreter): A lot of Melenchon’s voters who voted for him because of anger will be able to vote for us in 15 days, because they won’t vote for an ultra-liberal, such as Mr. Macron.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in right-wing politics, believes that’s an illusion.

JEAN-YVES CAMUS, Observatory of Political Radicalism: There’s no way she can be elected, unless, of course, of a huge political earthquake or something really nasty such as a terrorist attack.

MALCOLM BRABANT: These National Front supporters were partying as if the ultimate prize was a foregone conclusion. But most people headed home early, as reality sank in that they have a major battle on their hands if they’re to emulate the victories of Brexit and Donald Trump.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in France.

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