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PARIS (Reuters) – Emmanuel Macron was elected French president on Sunday with a business-friendly vision of European integration, defeating Marine Le Pen, a far-right nationalist who threatened to take France out of the European Union.

The centrist’s emphatic victory, which also smashed the dominance of France’s mainstream parties, will bring huge relief to European allies who had feared another populist upheaval to follow Britain’s vote to quit the EU and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.

With virtually all votes counted, Macron had topped 66 percent against just under 34 percent for Le Pen – a gap wider than the 20 or so percentage points that pre-election surveys had suggested.

Even so, it was a record performance for the National Front, a party whose anti-immigrant policies once made it a pariah, and underlined the scale of the divisions that Macron must now try to heal.

After winning the first round two weeks ago, Macron had been accused of behaving as if he was already president; on Sunday night, with victory finally sealed, he was much more solemn.

“I know the divisions in our nation, which have led some to vote for the extremes. I respect them,” Macron said in an address at his campaign headquarters, shown live on television.

“I know the anger, the anxiety, the doubts that very many of you have also expressed. It’s my responsibility to hear them,” he said. “I will work to recreate the link between Europe and its peoples, between Europe and citizens.”

Later he strode alone almost grimly through the courtyard of the Louvre Palace in central Paris to the strains of the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, not breaking into a smile until he mounted the stage of his victory rally to the cheers of his partying supporters.

His immediate challenge will be to secure a majority in next month’s parliamentary election for a political movement that is barely a year old, rebranded as La Republique En Marche (“Onward the Republic”), in order to implement his program.

Outgoing president Francois Hollande, who brought Macron into politics, said the result “confirms that a very large majority of our fellow citizens wanted to unite around the values of the Republic and show their attachment to the European Union.”

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, told Macron: “I am delighted that the ideas you defended of a strong and progressive Europe, which protects all its citizens, will be those that you will carry into your presidency”.

Macron spoke by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he hopes to revitalize the Franco-German axis at the heart of the EU, saying he planned to visit Berlin shortly.

Trump also tweeted his congratulations on Macron’s “big win”, saying he looked forward to working with him.

The euro currency, which had been rising for two weeks as the prospect receded that France would elect an anti-EU president, topped $1.10 in early Asian trading for the first time since the U.S. elections.

“Fading political risk in France adds to the chance that euro zone economic growth can surprise to the upside this year,” said Holger Schmieding, analyst at Berenberg Bank.

The 39-year-old former investment banker, who served for two years as economy minister under Hollande but has never previously held elected office, will become France’s youngest leader since Napoleon.

Le Pen, 48, said she had also offered her congratulations. But she defiantly claimed the mantle of France’s main opposition in calling on “all patriots to join us” in constituting a “new political force”.

Her tally was almost double the score that her father Jean-Marie, the last far-right candidate to make the presidential runoff, achieved in 2002, when he was trounced by the conservative Jacques Chirac.

Her high-spending, anti-globalization ‘France-first’ policies may have unnerved financial markets but they appealed to many poorer members of society against a background of high unemployment, social tensions, and security concerns.

Despite having served briefly in Hollande’s deeply unpopular Socialist government, Macron managed to portray himself as the man to revive France’s fortunes by recasting a political landscape molded by the left-right divisions of the last century.

“I’ve liked his youth and his vision from the start,” said Katia Dieudonné, a 35-year-old immigrant from Haiti who brought her two children to Macron’s victory rally.

“He stands for the change I’ve wanted since I arrived in France in 1985 – openness, diversity, without stigmatizing anyone … I’ve voted for the left in the past and been disappointed.”

Macron’s team successfully skirted several attempts to derail his campaign – by hacking its communications and distributing purportedly leaked documents – that were reminiscent of the hacking of Democratic Party communications during Hillary Clinton’s U.S. election campaign.

Allegations by Macron’s camp that a massive computer hack had compromised emails added last-minute drama on Friday night, just as official campaigning was ending.

While Macron sees France’s way forward in boosting the competitiveness of an open economy, Le Pen wanted to shield French workers by closing borders, quitting the EU’s common currency, the euro, radically loosening the bloc and scrapping trade deals.

When he moves into the Elysee Palace after his inauguration next weekend, Macron will become the eighth – and youngest – president of France’s Fifth Republic.

Opinion surveys taken before the second round suggest that his fledgling movement, despite being barely a year old, has a fighting chance of securing the majority he needs.

He plans to blend a big reduction in public spending and a relaxation of labor laws with greater investment in training and a gradual reform of the unwieldy pension system.

A European integrationist and pro-NATO, he is orthodox in foreign and defense policy and shows no sign of wishing to change France’s traditional alliances or reshape its military and peacekeeping roles in the Middle East and Africa.

His election also represents a long-awaited generational change in French politics that have been dominated by the same faces for years.

He will be the youngest leader in the current Group of Seven (G7) major nations and has elicited comparisons with youthful leaders past and present, from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to British ex-premier Tony Blair and even late U.S. president John F. Kennedy.

But any idea of a brave new political dawn will be tempered by an abstention rate on Sunday of around 25 percent, the highest this century, and by the blank or spoiled ballots submitted by 12 percent of those who did vote.

Many of those will have been supporters of the far-left maverick Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose high-spending, anti-EU, anti-globalization platform had many similarities with Le Pen’s.

Melenchon took 19 percent in coming fourth in the first round of the election, and pointedly refused to endorse Macron for the runoff.

France’s biggest labor union, the CFDT, welcomed Macron’s victory but said that the National Front’s score was still worryingly high.

“Now, all the anxieties expressed at the ballot by a part of the electorate must be heard,” it said in a statement. “The feeling of being disenfranchised, of injustice, and even abandonment is present among a large number of our citizens.”

The more radical leftist CGT union called for a demonstration on Monday against “liberal” economic policies.

Like Macron, Le Pen will now have to work to try to convert her presidential result into parliamentary seats, in a two-round system that has in the past encouraged voters to vote tactically to keep her out.

She has worked for years to soften the xenophobic associations that clung to the National Front under her father, going so far as to expel him from the party he founded.

On Sunday night, her deputy Florian Philippot distanced the movement even further from him by saying the new, reconstituted party would not be called “National Front”.

(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, Andrew Callus, Marina Depetris, Bate Felix, Sybille de la Hamaide, Mathieu Rosemain, Sarah White, Matthias Blamont, Julien Pretot, Geert de Clercq, Adrian Croft, Leigh Thomas, Helen Reid, Tim Hepher, Jemima Kelly, Maya Nikolaeva, Dominique Vidalon, Cyril Altmeyer and Gus Trompiz; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Sen. David Perdue

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) pulled out of his final debate against Democrat Jon Ossoff on Thursday —because he'd rather attend a Donald Trump campaign rally.

The Nov. 1 Senate debate was planned months ago, but Perdue's campaign said he could not participate as promised because he has been too busy doing his job.

"Senator Perdue will not be participating in the WSB-TV debate but will instead join the 45th president, Donald J. Trump, for a huge Get-Out-The-Vote rally in Northwest Georgia. For 8 of the last 14 days of this campaign, Senator Perdue went back to Washington to work for much needed COVID relief," his spokesperson John Burke said in a statement, referencing a failed attempt by Senate Republicans to pass Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) "skinny" $500 billion proposal.

"To make up for the lost time, Senator Perdue has over 20 campaign stops planned for the closing days of this race, and he is excited to welcome and join President Trump in Georgia before November 3rd to campaign for both of their re-election efforts," Burke added.

WSB-TV noted on Thursday that it offered Perdue's campaign other time slots to accommodate the Trump rally, but the overture was rebuffed.

Ossoff's campaign blasted Perdue's "cowardly withdrawal," saying in a statement that the move "says it all: David Perdue feels entitled to his office, and he'll do anything to avoid accountability for his blatant corruption and his total failure during this unprecedented health crisis."

The incumbent's decision to break his promise to debate came one day after a video of Jon Ossoff criticizing Perdue's anti-Obamacare record at a Wednesday debate went viral. As of Friday morning, a 72-second clip of Ossoff has been viewed more than 12 million times.

Perdue responded to that attack by making the odd claim that he repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act — which would take insurance away from hundreds of thousands of his constituents — because he believed doing so would cover more people.

"I voted against the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, because it was taking insurance away from millions of Georgians. Today almost 18 percent of Georgians don't have any health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act," he falsely claimed.

This is not the first time Perdue has put Trump ahead of the interests of Georgians. According to FiveThirtyEight, he has voted with Trump about 95 percent of the time, including backing his right-wing Supreme Court nominees, his tax cuts for large corporations and the very wealthy, and his repeated attempts to take money from military families to pay for a massive Southern border wall.

Medical experts and data analyses have suggested Trump's rallies have been super-spreader events for the coronavirus. Trump has refused to adhere to social distancing rules or to require mask usage at the events and the mass gatherings have frequently been immediately followed by case spikes in the communities where he holds them.

One poll this week found that voters across the country said they are less likely to vote for Trump because of his "large, in-person campaign rallies where wearing a mask is not required of attendees."

The race between Ossoff and Perdue is considered a "toss-up" by election experts, and polls show it as virtual tied.

If no candidate gets a majority on Tuesday, the top two finishers will face off in a January runoff.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.