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The French election, explained in 500 words

Le Pen (L) and Macron (R)
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The first round of France’s presidential election, held on Sunday, narrowed the field of 11 candidates to the two top vote getters: the charismatic young centrist Emmanuel Macron, who won 23.9 percent of the vote, and far-right populist Marine Le Pen, who won 21.4 percent. These two will now face off in a May 7 second round to determine who, ultimately, gets to lead France.

This was the result most pollsters were predicting before the vote. But if you take a longer view, and look at things in the broader context of French and Western politics, it’s hard to overstate how jarring this result is.

For decades, French politics, like that of most Western countries, was dominated by competition between the establishment center left and establishment center right — who competed principally over the size of the welfare state. In France, the two establishment parties are the Socialists on the left and the Republicans on the right.

But, shockingly, neither of those parties even came close. The current president of France, Socialist François Hollande, is exceptionally unpopular, having been unable to prevent multiple terrorist attacks and high unemployment. His party’s candidate, Benoît Hamon, got just 6.4 percent of the vote on Sunday.

The Republican candidate, François Fillon, had been considered the favorite early in the race. But his poll numbers plummeted over a scandal — specifically, evidence that he had been paying his wife and children with government money to do ... basically nothing.

The result is that the establishment parties were historically weak. That opened up space for newcomers — far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon did surprisingly well too. But the two upstarts who won, in some ways, better speak to the current divisions in France and Europe broadly than the establishment.

Le Pen’s National Front, founded by her father Jean Marie in the ’70s, is perhaps the best-organized and most well-known of Europe’s far-right parties. The FN built itself in opposition to immigration and diversity, a kind of hardline nationalism that led to deep skepticism about European integration.

The FN had made the presidential runoff once before, in 2002, but was crushed in the second round by an 82-18 margin. Today the party is far more mainstream — Fillon even adopted some of Le Pen’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Macron’s En Marche, a new party built around his candidacy this election, is the anti-FN. Le Pen wants to restrict immigration to France and pull France out of the European Union; Macron supports keeping the borders open and proudly waved the EU flag at his final campaign rally.

What we’re seeing in France is not the traditional debate over the size of the welfare state, but rather one over the core values of France: tolerance and openness to Europe. This divide, sometimes summed up as “nationalism versus globalism,” is increasingly a key point of division across Europe.

So who’s going to win in the second round? We can’t be sure — but every poll taken so far gives Macron a commanding lead. Whatever happens, it’ll be historic.

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