- - Sunday, April 23, 2017

PARIS — The next president of France will either be a photogenic centrist ex-banker who set up his party just a year ago or the leader of a far-right party who wants to close the country’s borders and leave the European Union, according to preliminary election results.

On Sunday, French voters went to the polls and gave independent candidate Emmanuel Macron the lead in the race with 23.90 percent of the vote. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, came in second with 21.42 percent, with 96 percent of the vote tallied.

Trailing them were Communist Party Candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and Republican former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, nearly tied at about 19.56 percent and 19.94 percent, respectively.

Because, as expected, no single candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will face off in the second round May 7, an election that most view as crucial to the future of the European Union. France is a founding member and the third-biggest economy in the 28-member bloc after Germany and the United Kingdom, the latter of which is expected to leave the union in the next few years.

Mr. Macron told his cheering supporters that they are “the faces of French hope” and vowed to be a president “who protects, who transforms and builds.”

Ms. LePen declared herself “the great alternative” for French voters and said, “The time has come to free the French people.”

The election has been a closely watched litmus test of French anger at the political establishment, not least because of the victories of the Brexit camp last summer and Donald Trump in November.

Still, it was the first time the establishment parties — the Socialists and the Republicans — both failed to pass the first round of elections in modern French history. The results highlight voters’ disappointment with traditional parties, perceived incapable of dealing with voters’ concerns about unemployment, security and reforms.

“I have voted Socialist in the past, but Benoit Hamon’s program did not convince me,” said Francois Dorleans, 38, a payroll specialist from the Parisian suburb of Asnieres-sur-Seine. “So it had to be Macron — his program is realistic, and he doesn’t belong to a traditional party.”

“The political system in France is paralyzed and polarized between (mainstream) left and (mainstream) right,” he said. “At the same time, a lot of people are saying, ‘Everyone but Le Pen.’”

Almost 47 million French people, at home and overseas, voted in the first round of the country’s presidential election — a high turnout that surprised many pollsters. There were concerns about voters abstaining in record numbers out of disgust for the candidates.

For the first time in France’s modern history, a constitutionally eligible outgoing president did not stand for re-election. Though Francois Hollande’s approval ratings have cratered to as low as 4 percent. Mr. Hamon, his successor as candidate, polled at a mere 6.35 percent.

Still, the mood was tense mainly because of fears of further terrorist attacks, with almost 60,000 police and military deployed at polls and across the capital and the country. Several polling stations were briefly evacuated after false alarms in Besancon, Saint-Omer, Haguenau and Paris.

After the results became apparent Sunday night, anarchist and “antifa” protesters clashed with police, setting cars ablaze and dancing around the fire. Authorities responded to the riots with tear gas.

Late Thursday, one police officer died and three other people were injured after a gunman — a 39-year-old French national who supported the Islamic State group — leaped out of a car and opened fire on a police bus on the Champs-Elysees, one of Paris’ most iconic landmarks.

Some worried that the “terror” factor would help Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Fillon, both vocal about the measures the country needs to take to combat extremists.

But Mr. Fillon, the center-right former prime minister who was once seen as the front-runner, has been caught up in a scandal involving his family’s appearance on the government payroll for jobs they didn’t do.

Anger and frustration over a failure to stop terrorist attacks — France has experienced three major attacks since 2015 — as well as the sluggish economy with unemployment hovering at around 10 percent that propelled non-mainstream candidates to the forefront, analysts said.

Meanwhile, dislike for the European Union has taken a foothold on both ends of the political spectrum, while in general the public has grown weary with a political class they see as privileged and out of touch with real life.

This anger has been channeled into growing support for Ms. Le Pen on the far right and Mr. Melenchon on the far left, who have promised a more secure life with more welfare, free from the shackles of the European Union and NATO and with protectionist policies to shield the economy from the effects of globalization.

Voters who wanted to avoid extremes were left with Mr. Macron. A former economy minister in Mr. Hollande’s government, he started the En March (Onwards) party to promote a platform that is socially liberal but pro-business. He pledges to loosen France’s famously restrictive labor laws even as he says he will retain the cherished social safety net.

Ms. Le Pen has worked hard to sanitize the reputation of the National Front — founded by her father, Jean-Marie, whom she expelled from the party in 2015 — and present a “softer” image to voters beyond its mostly male, blue-collar supporters.

As such, she has garnered support from women and the unemployed youth, and even Muslim voters in the French suburbs.

“Today neither the (mainstream) right nor the (mainstream) left won,” Michael Amaouz, 31, a sales manager, said after Ms. Le Pen was officially in the second round. “It shows that a new political world is happening.

“It’s truly satisfying, and we’ll be even more satisfied in 15 days,” he said of Ms. Le Pen’s solid showing and her potential presidency. “We believe in it, and today we are mobilizing — all of France is mobilizing. People are fed up.”

Responding to the wave of Islamist terrorist attacks that have shaken France since early 2015, Ms. Le Pen has renewed her commitment to a massive reduction in immigration and has said that jobs, welfare, housing and education should go to French citizens before they get to non-nationals.

She has also presented herself as the champion of workers and farmers against “wild and anarchic” globalization.

Ms. Le Pen, who welcomed the U.K. vote in June to leave the EU, has promised a similar referendum in France within six months of taking office and warmer ties with Russia.

Her election manifesto also included plans to strengthen police numbers and powers, as well as creating 40,000 more prison spaces.

Mr. Macron was garnering support from some of the defeated candidates. Mr. Fillon said Sunday that “extremism can only bring unhappiness and division to France. … There is no other choice than to vote against the extreme right.”

As she prepares to face Mr. Macron, Ms. Le Pen is expected to work hard to woo center-right voters in the next two weeks.

But historian Nicolas Lebourg said in an interview with the daily newspaper Liberation that as she faces Mr. Macron in the second round, Ms. Le Pen will have a tough time representing “the new” with voters and will struggle to appeal to the center-right voters, who are likely to prefer Mr. Macron’s economic program.

It will likely be an uphill battle for the National Front leader: A flash poll by Ipsos for French daily Le Monde on Sunday shows Mr. Macron beating Ms. Le Pen 62 percent to 38 percent.

Geraldine Marot, 39, whose preferred candidate, Nicolas Dupont Aignan of the euroskeptic center-right party Debout la France gained only 5 percent of votes, already knows who will get her vote in her second round.

“In the first round, I have always voted for candidates that resonate with my convictions,” she said. “What annoys me about the second round is that people have to choose the lesser of two evils. In any case, if it’s a contest between Macron and Le Pen, I will vote Macron.”

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