PARIS (AP) — French voters elected centrist Emmanuel Macron as the country’s youngest president ever on Sunday, delivering a resounding victory to the unabashedly pro-European former investment banker and strengthening France’s place as a central pillar of the European Union.
A crowd of Macron supporters roared with delight at the news, jubilantly waving red, white and blue tricolor flags at a victory party outside the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Marine Le Pen, his far-right opponent in the presidential runoff, quickly called the 39-year-old Macron to concede defeat after voters rejected her “French-first” nationalism by a large margin.
The result wasn’t even close: Pollsters projected that Macron won 65 percent of the votes. Le Pen’s projected 35 percent score was lower than her polling numbers earlier in the campaign, and dashed her hopes that the populist wave which swept Donald Trump into the White House would also carry her to France’s presidential Elysee Palace.
Macron’s victory marked the third time in six months — following elections in Austria and the Netherlands — that European voters shot down far-right populists who wanted to restore borders across Europe. The election of a French president who championed European unity could strengthen the EU’s hand in its complex divorce proceedings with Britain, which voted last year to leave the bloc.
In a statement minutes after the last polls closed Sunday night, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced Macron’s victory.
“(This) testifies to the lucidity of the voters, who rejected the deadly project of the extreme right,” he said, adding that the presidential vote showed an embrace of the EU.
Many French voters backed Macron reluctantly, not because they agreed with his politics but simply to keep out Le Pen and her far-right National Front party, which is still tainted by its long anti-Semitic and racist history.
After the most closely watched and unpredictable French presidential campaign in recent memory, many voters rejected the runoff choice altogether. Pollsters projected that French voters cast blank or spoiled ballots in record numbers Sunday.
Macron now becomes not only France’s youngest-ever president but also one of its most unlikely. Until now, modern France had been governed either by the Socialists or the conservatives — but both Macron and Le Pen upended those political traditions.
Unknown to voters before his turbulent 2014-16 tenure as France’s pro-business economy minister, Macron took a giant gamble by quitting the government of outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande to run as an independent in his first electoral campaign.
His startup political movement — optimistically named, “En Marche!,” or “Forward!” — caught fire in just one year, harnessing voters’ hunger for new faces and new ideas and steering France into unchartered political territory.
In a first for postwar France, neither of the mainstream parties on the left or the right qualified in the first round of voting on April 23 for Sunday’s winner-takes-all duel between Macron and Le Pen.
Despite her loss, Le Pen’s advancement to the runoff for the first time marked a breakthrough for the 48-year-old. She had placed third in the 2012 presidential vote, underscoring a growing acceptance for her fierce anti-immigration, France-first nationalism among disgruntled voters.
Le Pen immediately turned her focus to France’s upcoming legislative elections in June, where Macron will need a working majority to govern effectively.
“I call on all patriots to join us,” she said. “France will need you more than ever in the months ahead.”
Le Pen said she got 11 million votes. If confirmed, that would be double the score of her father, National Front co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, at the same stage in the 2002 presidential election.
The candidates’ polar-opposite visions presented the 47 million registered voters with the starkest possible choice. Le Pen’s closed borders faced off against Macron’s open ones; his commitment to free trade ran against her proposals to protect the French from global economic competition and immigration. Her desire to free France from the EU and the shared euro currency contrasted with his argument that both are essential for the future of Europe’s third-largest economy.
As well as capitalizing on voter rejection of the left-right monopoly on power, Macron also got lucky.
One of his most dangerous opponents, conservative former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, was hobbled by allegations that his family benefited from cushy taxpayer-funded jobs for years.
On the left, the Socialist Party imploded, its candidate abandoned by voters who wanted to punish Hollande, France’s most unpopular president since World War II. Hollande himself realized he was unelectable and decided not to run again.
Macron takes charge of a nation that, when Britain leaves the EU in 2019, will become the EU’s only member with nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
He has promised a France that would stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin but that also would seek to work with the Russian leader on what he says will be one of his top priorities: fighting the Islamic State group, whose extremists have claimed or inspired multiple attacks in France since 2015.
France has been in a state of emergency since then and 50,000 security forces were used to safeguard Sunday’s vote.
Macron is expected to keep up French military operations against extremists in Iraq and Syria and Africa’s Sahel region, and maintain pressure on Russia over Ukraine and support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With the United States, Macron says he wants continued intelligence-sharing and cooperation at the United Nations and hopes to persuade Trump not to pull the U.S. out of a global emissions-cutting deal against climate change.
Domestically, Macron inherits a deeply troubled and divided nation of 67 million people. The French are riven by anxieties about terrorism and chronic unemployment, worried about the cultural, economic and religious impact of immigration and fear France’s ability to compete against giants like China and Google.
His proposed remedies include both economic reforms and his own infectious, upbeat optimism that France need not resign itself to continuing economic and social decline, especially as part of an EU competing together against other powers.
The campaign ended Friday night with a hacking attack and document leak targeting Macron. France’s government cybersecurity agency, ANSSI, is investigating. Macron’s team said the hack aimed to destabilize the vote. But the timing of the leak appeared too late to have a significant impact on voting intentions.