by Courtney Vinopal and Natasha Frost
Standing outside the New York French American Charter School in Harlem on Saturday afternoon, an American in a baseball cap called after his friend, who was going in to vote in the first round of France’s presidential election.
“Le Pen!” he cried, cupping his hand around his mouth.
Immediately, at least three French expats or visitors standing outside the building turned around with shocked expressions on their face.
“I’m kidding,” he said, and laughed sheepishly.
This election is set to be one of the most controversial, and consequential, in France’s recent history. The results of the first round of voting on Sunday showed political novice and centrist Emmanuel Macron and reactionary and rabble-rouser Marine Le Pen neck-and-neck. In the run-off election on May 7th, one of the two will become France’s next president.
Either way it is a big change. This is the first time there has been neither a Socialist nor Republican candidate on the second round ballot, suggesting a rejection of the country’s traditional parties. The election follows months of instability and anxiety around continued terror threats (just last Thursday, an attack on the Champs-Elysées left one police officer dead and two pedestrians injured); growing youth radicalization; and the issue of the European Union, its faults and strengths. These factors helped embolden Le Pen, whose strong anti-immigration message is not dissimilar to the one that helped President Trump win last year’s election.
Hours before voters in France headed to the polls for the first round, New York’s French population, estimated at between 80,000 and 100,000, lined up to vote at five locations across the city. At the French American Charter School on 120th Street, French expats and tourists alike descended into the school’s underground gymnasium, flashed French passports or ID cards, and then disappeared into canvas voting booths, striped red, white, and blue. More than one sported a beret.
Anne-Claire Legendre, the French Consul General in New York, who was overseeing the event at the school, declined to estimate how many people had come to vote. At any given time, though, 20 or 30 people were in booths or waiting in the corridor, beneath posters of French politicians.
Macron seemed the favorite among the French voting in New York. Christophe Chevee, a 36-year-old expat, said that despite being far from home, he’d followed the elections very closely online. “I’ve found it very interesting,” he said. “It’s my duty to vote.” Chevee, a banker, was struck by how quickly Macron had been able to throw together a political party—and at the success of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen. “I’m very happy,” he said. “And I can’t wait to see the results.”
On Sunday, hours before the initial results were announced, the basement of Café Tallulah, a French restaurant on the corner of 71st Street and Columbus Avenue, was packed with supporters of Macron’s movement, En Marche!, or “Forward!” In the course of just one year, the nascent political party of center-left candidate Macron has emerged as the pro-European alternative to Le Pen’s far-right National Front party.
Many of Macron’s supporters here were expats living in New York—though there were a smattering of French citizens visiting from out of town. Macron, who is just 39, appears to have shaken up the presidential election more than any other politician in recent years.
“When En Marche started, I saw it as a very rare opportunity,” said Florent Joly, 27, one of the main organizers of En Marche New York. “This is maybe the last opportunity to fight against the National Front. This is the one alternative that we can propose that is credible, strong, an actual alternative, that is not just an extreme, not the status quo.”
Macron emerged as a promising candidate amid historically low approval ratings for President François Hollande, a member of the Socialist party. For Joly, Macron is precisely the right candidate to energize voters who are weary of France’s traditional political parties.
Formerly the French minister of the economy, industry, and digital affairs, Macron has praised the entrepreneurial spirit of American tech companies, and encouraged French start-ups to similarly “embrace failure and celebrate success.” His platform is pro-European, with a centrist economic agenda, promising to cut labor costs and limit bureaucratic constraints in order to boost hiring in France.
“If a guy is able to motivate 200,000 people to trust politics again, that’s a huge change, that’s where we need to go to fight the extremes,” said Joly. The crowd at Café Tallulah seemed sufficiently energized, erupting with cheers when Macron’s lead was announced.
But the second round is far from a done deal. A large number of French voters turned out for Le Pen, who trailed Macron by only two percentage points on Sunday evening. These voters were sure to be a significant part of the French political system for the foreseeable future, said Jean-Charles Clichet, a Parisian actor visiting New York.
“Starting today, we’ll have to count on the National Front, which is a bit hard to accept,” said Clichet, 35. He noted that the Socialist party candidate, Benoît Hamon, performed particularly poorly during this election, with only 6.3 percent of the vote. Center-right candidate François Fillon performed a little better, but still conceded the race and announced he would vote for Macron.
As French politicians adjust to a new political landscape, they are also taking lessons from Americans, said Joly. “You have to be against the system, you have to embody radical change, to be bold in what you say,” he added. “Macron is taking this very emotional energy and spinning it into something positive, whereas Le Pen is taking the same energy, and spinning it negatively. They have two different solutions but kind of the same starting point.”
Once the results had come through, the crowd quickly dispersed from Café Tallulah and back out into the New York sunshine. There was no sense of celebrating an ending. French voters, either home or away, seemed to have a clear understanding that this early upset might just be the beginning.