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Macron elected French president in a boost for EU

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Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, seen here prior to a speech in front of a crowd of supporters on April 23, won the French presidential election Sunday. (Axelle de Russe/Abaca Press/TNS)
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PARIS — Emmanuel Macron beat the anti-euro nationalist Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election Sunday.

Le Pen conceded defeat in a televised statement.

Macron, an independent centrist who had never before run for public office, was forecast to win about 65 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election to 35 percent for National Front candidate Le Pen, according to projections by the country’s main pollsters released after voting ended.

At 39, Macron is set to become the youngest-ever elected French head of state.

A pro-European globalist, Macron will have to unite a divided France after one of the most bitter and turbulent elections of modern times. His challenge will be to end years of high unemployment and sluggish growth, deal with the terrorist threat that has traumatized the country and, ultimately, restore faith in the political establishment.

His victory will help restore some of the European Union’s self-confidence after it was battered by Britain’s decision to leave the bloc last year. A committed free-trader, Macron will help act as a counterweight to the protectionist wing of Donald Trump’s White House along with Germany’s Angela Merkel, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Xi Jinping of China.

The election result is at once a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met with Le Pen at the Kremlin in March, and a rebuff to Trump, who said in April that Le Pen was the “strongest” candidate on borders.

The election came down to a choice between two radically different visions for France that were on show last week when the candidates clashed in their only televised debate.

Macron will be sworn in as soon as this week as the head of mainland Europe’s second-largest economy and its leading military power. France also is one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

It was a remarkable achievement for Macron, who built his En Marche movement just last year. A former investment banker and economy minister in the outgoing government of Francois Hollande, he resigned his post only in August to run for president, becomes France’s first postwar head of state to be elected from outside the traditional party structure.

Yet Macron’s lack of an established base may curtail his ability to fulfill campaign pledges to pursue closer ties to France’s European neighbors and launch far-reaching reform of the economy. Macron has pledged to strengthen the euro, cut taxes on business and improve competitiveness by allowing more company flexibility and by inviting top scientists to move to France.

The election ended a tumultuous campaign that culminated in a cyberattack on the Macron campaign. Surprises littered the way to Sunday’s runoff. The incumbent decided not to seek re-election, a first for a sitting president, while former head of state Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls suffered humiliating defeats in their parties’ primaries.

Favorites came and went, above all former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who led the polls until a newspaper revealed in January that he had hired family members for what may have been no-show jobs. Then there was the unforeseen rise of a far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who took almost 20 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election two weeks ago.

The final twist — the announcement late Friday that Macron’s campaign had been hacked by an unknown party — is likely to likely reverberate into Macron’s presidency. While details are still scant, suspicion has fallen on Russia after the CIA found that the Kremlin interfered in the U.S. election, a charge rejected by Trump as “ridiculous.” Unlike Macron, Le Pen has called for sanctions on Russia to be lifted and coverage of her on Russia sites and media has been positive.

Le Pen will have to reflect on a campaign that highlighted the appeal of her anti-immigrant, anti-establishment rhetoric, but also its limits. The 35 percent of the vote she won was about twice what she received in 2012, but still left her a long way from victory. Questions will now be asked about the direction of her party, in particular her policy to abandon the euro currency.

On foreign policy, Macron has already signaled his desire to work more closely with Merkel on bolstering the foundations of the EU as the U.K. prepares to leave. Putin will also be facing a united front in Merkel and Macron, who has previously complained that Russian state news agencies have tried to disrupt his campaign with fake news reports. Macron will meet Trump and Merkel at a NATO leaders’ meeting in Brussels followed by a Group of Seven summit in Sicily this month.

Macron’s electoral challenges aren’t over. His first significant announcement will be his prime minister who will lead a caretaker government until parliamentary elections in June. They will be crucial for a president whose En Marche movement has no experience contesting legislative elections.

While Macron’s prime minister will get to select a government, the newly elected parliament will have the power to bring it down and impose its own choice unless En Marche becomes the largest bloc. With at least five political formations contesting all 577 seats, a hung parliament could emerge.

And while Macron prevented France from succumbing to the populist wave that led to Trump’s victory in November and Britain’s referendum decision to quit the EU, he will lead a country in which about 40 percent of the population voted in the April 23 first round for candidates opposed to the international liberal trading order. About 25 percent of the electorate is predicted to have abstained in the runoff.

“Marine Le Pen will have received 10 million votes, and that will have an impact on our politics,” Valls, the Socialist former prime minister, said May 4. “We’re at a crucial moment for our country.”

Macron’s victory will relieve investors after a campaign during which bond yields fluctuated in tandem with the fortunes of Le Pen’s bid to take France out of the eurozone.

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