Macron-Le Pen Runoff Stirs Hope, Anxiety, Alarm in French Voters

(Bloomberg) -- A day after knocking the country’s two mainstream parties out of the presidential race, French voters are facing a May 7 runoff election with a mix of optimism and anxiety.

Emmanuel Macron, the centrist independent who’s heavily favored to defeat the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen, has never held elected office and has yet to show if he can assemble a parliamentary majority. Macron’s roughly 24 percent score on Sunday means that three-fourths of voters chose someone else -- including about 21.5 percent who backed Le Pen.

“Of course we’re worried when we see the National Front advancing to the second round,” said Abdou Hane, who runs a furniture business in Strasbourg. In Paris for a business meeting on Monday, Hane said he voted for Francois Fillon, the center-right candidate eliminated in the first round. He says he’ll vote for Macron on May 7 and hopes he’ll encourage entrepreneurship and reduce social charges on companies. He frets about Macron’s political inexperience, though. "It will all depend on his team," Hane said.

Macron’s unconventional resume is a plus in the eyes of some voters. “He unites ideas from the left and the right, and he has experience in the world of work,” said Vincent Le Fur, a labor lawyer who works in the La Defense business district near Paris. “This is something new for France.”

‘Bankers’ versus ‘Racists’

The election sets up a choice between the pro-free trade, pro-European Union Macron and the anti-euro, anti-immigrant Le Pen. Macron proposes reducing the corporate tax rate to the European average of 25 percent from 33 percent, exempting stock holdings from the wealth tax and easing the social charges that companies face when hiring low-skilled employees. Le Pen has called for a surtax on companies that hire non-French workers, the imposition of import duties and a withdrawal from free-trade pacts, including the EU.

Macron, 39, was an investment banker and served as a presidential adviser and economy minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande, though he’s said he isn’t a Socialist. He has experience dealing with legislation and negotiating with labor unions, which will help him address France’s sluggish economic growth and high unemployment, Le Fur said. “It’s going to be complicated, but I’m optimistic,” he said, adding that Le Pen’s plan to pull France out of the euro currency would cause “catastrophe.”

Catherine Eple, a commercial assistant at the La Defense offices of appliance maker Whirlpool, said Macron’s inexperience didn’t trouble her. “We’ve had experienced politicians, and they haven’t done a good job,” she said. Eple, who voted for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round, said she prefers Macron to Le Pen but worries he is “too close to the banks and the bosses.”

For Delphine Charvet, a sales representative who lives in the town of Saint Dizier in eastern France, “it’s shameful” that Macron and Le Pen are the only candidates remaining. “It’s like having to choose between the bankers and the racists,” she said. Charvet plans to abstain in the second round, and declined to say whom she supported on April 23.