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French Voters Embrace Outsiders In First Round Of Presidential Election


Voters in France have upended the political order there. Newcomer Emmanuel Macron beat 10 other candidates yesterday to win a landmark victory in the first round of the French presidential election. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen came in second. Now the two will meet in a runoff in a couple of weeks that will be watched around the world. Neither represents what have been until now France's major political parties. Macron is the current favorite, but to ensure a clear victory, he has to pick up millions of votes from people who did not support him in the first round.

Now, for more on the sprint to this May 7 runoff, we turn to Frank Langfitt in Paris. And Frank, how hard is it going to be to pick up these new voters given the way the electorate was split?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, you know, Macron, first of all, has a lot going for him. Candidates from other major parties that lost yesterday, the Republicans and the Socialists - they urged their voters to back Macron to stop Le Pen, and that's because Le Pen is really deeply polarizing here. She's an anti-immigration candidate, anti-globalization. Many people would say they find her policies xenophobic, and analysts would even say that maybe Macron's biggest advantage right now is that he isn't Marine Le Pen.

CORNISH: You've given him a lot of advantages here. What are the challenges he's facing?

LANGFITT: Well, a lot. Macron's never held elective office before. He started his party just last year. He's a centrist with a pretty vague platform. And so I was out on the streets of Paris today, talking to potential voters, and I heard, you know, a lot of skepticism from people, had this interesting exchange in the 16th arrondissement. It's a very wealthy area. And I was talking to a travel agency manager. Her name is Evelyne Birot. And in the first round, she voted for Francois Fillon. He's a mainstream conservative. So the next question I asked was this.

How will you vote in the next round between Le Pen and Macron?

EVELYNE BIROT: I don't vote. I - we don't vote. It's not possible for me to vote Macron.


BIROT: (Speaking French).

LANGFITT: What she's saying here is, "he's a fake. He's a fake. He's like a laundry product."

CORNISH: A fake - how unusual is that critique?

LANGFITT: You hear it a fair bit, you know, I think maybe because of his youth, because he's taken policies from the right and the left. Some people here are not really sure what he stands for. And I've also heard a number of people refer to him on the streets here as an empty shell.

CORNISH: Now, what has to happen in the next 13 days to seal this election?

LANGFITT: Well, he needs to reach beyond his base - this is what analysts say - for people who - to people who just don't disagree with him and obviously liked other candidates. And that's, you know - let's face it. That's 75 percent of the electorate or so - for instance, people who disagree with him on economics. He's a former investment banker, and he's obviously sort of a neoliberal. They - people feel like he needs to appeal to Socialists who are very skeptical of high finance and are also skeptical of globalization because of all the damage it's done particularly up in northern France where a lot of industrial jobs have gone away and gone overseas.

CORNISH: Now, when you look at the demographic polling data on, like, which parts of French society voted the way they did, I mean how does this fit into what you're talking about?

LANGFITT: Well, it's been very interesting to see how things played out yesterday. There's a company called Ipsos MORI. They did a poll of around 5,000 - close to 5,000 people. And they found that young people actually did not go very heavily to Macron even though he's 39 years old. He's a very handsome guy. They actually went for populists to the extreme right, Marine Le Pen, like you were saying, and a guy on the far left, Jean-Luc Melenchon.

CORNISH: You know, Frank, we associate populism here at least right now with older voters, many of whom supported Donald Trump in the last election. Why did young voters go for populists in France?

LANGFITT: Frustration. Young people here are frustrated with chronic high unemployment. They feel the mainstream parties haven't delivered for them. They're disillusioned. They're pretty desperate, and they're really looking for change.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking to us from Paris. Frank, thanks so much.

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