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In France, Voters Swept Away Mainstream Presidential Candidates


We're going to talk about a political stunner that happened in France last night. Voters swept away mainstream left and right parties that have dominated French politics for decades, replacing them with outside candidates for a runoff in two weeks for the country's presidency.

Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who has never held elective office, will face off against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. For more on this political earthquake and what it means, we turn now to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is in Paris for us. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What did voters seem to be saying yesterday with this decision?

LANGFITT: Well, this was a complete rejection of the political establishment. The mainstream right and left wing parties have controlled the presidency since '58, but they haven't been able to solve France's problems. There's been chronic high unemployment here, political scandals. More recently, you know, you've seen a lot of industrial job loss because of global competition. Immigration's also been an issue. So basically, what voters were saying last night was, enough.

MARTIN: How big a deal is this?

LANGFITT: It's really a big deal. I mean, you know, we live in an age of hyperbole, but this is something else. I spent last night at Sciences Po Paris. It's one of France's top universities. And I was talking with a guy named Olivier Duhamel. He's a political scientist there. And he was - he found sort of the Macron victory stunning. He said imagine going back to, say, '92 in the U.S. in the race between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton if the independent candidate has won. Here's how he put it.

OLIVIER DUHAMEL: In a way, it's like if Ross Perot or someone like that would have become president of the United States. It's like if neither a Republican, neither a Democrat would have won the election. This would have been absolutely incredible. That's what happened in France.

LANGFITT: And, Rachel, a little more perspective on this. Macron just created his party last year. It largely exists online, doesn't hold a single elected office in the country. So it's hard to think of any analogy at all in a major Western democracy, say like the U.S. or the U.K., where something like this has happened.

MARTIN: All right, so what do these candidates stand for? What kind of choice do the French face between Macron and Le Pen?

LANGFITT: Well, they're polar opposites. Macron is 39. He's a former economy minister in the government here, political neophyte. He just doesn't have much background. He was a former investment banker, an internationalist. He's a big supporter of the European Union.

Le Pen could not be more different. She's about a decade older. She grew up in far-right politics here. She's run sort of a France-first campaign, all about tightening borders, anti-immigrant stance, tough on terrorism. Of course, she wants to take France out of the EU. And each - depending on who won - each would take the country in a completely different direction.

MARTIN: So it's interesting though, Frank, you said there's no real analogy in any other major Western democracy for what's happening in France. But this whole outsider thing is a bit of a trend right now. And it's hard to ignore what happened in our own U.S. election.

LANGFITT: Absolutely. And here's where I would say there's a real common thread. It's this anti-establishment anger, which we saw in the Trump vote and, of course, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to leave the EU. But here in France, instead of going conservative, the French at least in this first round have gone - have backed a moderate globalist.

And I was talking to Alain Dieckhoff - he's also at Sciences Po - last night. And he said that Macron's victory last night sends sort of an important message not only to the French but also more broadly to people in the world. Here's what he said.

ALAIN DIECKHOFF: There are still very powerful forces within French society which are - we didn't want to really go in the direction of populist parties and of really xenophobic positions and so on. So this is rather something, I think, positive.

MARTIN: So it'll be interesting to see who actually wins on the runoff on May 7. NPR's Frank Langfitt in Paris. Thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.

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