There were a few boos and whistles heard as the first results emerged on TV screens at the Châlet du Lac in Paris, the Front National’s headquarters for the evening, as it was announced their heroine Marine Le Pen had lost by more than 20 points to Emmanuel Macron.
But apart from those first murmurs, every effort was made to suggest that this was not in fact a defeat. Bottles were opened and petit-fours passed around, as one activist – glass in hand – declared: “She made giant steps, so let’s drink champagne.”
Ms Le Pen spoke not long after the first projected results were announced at 8pm. In a very brief speech, some three minutes in all, she described Front National (FN) as “the first opposition force to the new president”. Her words were welcomed with applause and a few shouts of “thanks Marine”, but very quickly the excitement died down.
Stéphane Ravier, mayor of the 7th sector of Marseille and FN senator of the Bouches du Rhone, told The Independent it was a “historic score” for the party. “Eleven million voters supported Marine Le Pen, it is a great victory that places her as the first political opponent,” he said.
“Mr Macron is the most ill-elected president of the Fifth Republic,” he added. “Elected by default, with a record [rate of] abstention. He intends to rule by order. He will act in an authoritarian way and we will see who is the most fascist.”
The main objective for the FN now is clearly to get a parliamentary group in the legislative elections in June. Organisers intend to go through a transformation of the movement and that will include a change of its name, the party’s number 2 Florian Philippot announced.
Aymeric, a 27-year-old activist, said he would “keep smiling anyway” after the result was announced, his mind already set on the legislative elections.
“Marine Le Pen has eliminated the Républicains and the Socialists, it’s great,” added Valérie Laupies, a regional councilor and member of the political bureau of the FN, who feels reinvigorated for the battle to come next month.
Even before tonight’s result, with Mr Macron leading by so much in the polls, the election was being presented as a launching pad for future votes.
Juliette, a 19-year-old supporter, admitted she would not be partying tonight because she felt sad at the defeat – but added: “Now we're heading for the legislative [election] and for 2022.”
One of the more remarkable outcomes of the vote has been a huge groundswell in support for FN from younger voters. Arthur, 18, said he saw “a chance for us for the legislative elections”, explaining that “the Républicains have become discredited, it will be to our advantage.”
It’s an opinion shared by Philippe Loiseau, a FN MEP, who told The Independent: “Most likely there will be a big fissure among the Républicains who called to vote Macron whereas tomorrow they will have to oppose him for the legislative elections.” In addition, he points out that Marine Le Pen has “doubled her score compared to 2012, it is a first in the history of the Fifth Republic, such a score for the FN in the second round of a presidential election.”
But for some supporters, the defeat was too raw on Sunday night for defiant words. Benjamin, 25, a commercial engineer for a top French company which he refused to name, confessed his disappointment: “We could have done better and we will do better next time, for the legislatives and in 2022.”
He said the final stages of the campaign had left him perplexed. “While I am convinced of the ideas and programme of the FN, during the debate I was not, so I can easily imagine that the undecided were not at all convinced.”
Victory for the Front National would have finally legitimised the views of those assembled here as the democratic will of the country. Instead, Benjamin says he would rather his boss and colleagues didn’t know he was here. Tonight, he says, he “weeps and hides from the cameras ... It’s still bad to be a member of the FN.”
Even earlier, before the result became clear, the mood among Ms Le Pen’s supporters was quite different to the jubilant scenes two weeks ago in Hénin-Beaumont, when she successfully advanced from the first round.
Blue roses, an emblem of Ms Le Pen’s campaign, were offered to each activist upon their arrival. They accepted them but most refused to answer any questions. They were aware that the latest polls were not in their favour.
A mother and her two daughters, all smartly dressed for the occasion, agreed to talk to The Independent. They were still optimistic for their candidate “whatever the polls say”.
Asked how they would feel if Ms Le Pen lost, the mother replied: “It will still be a success because she has managed to get there by herself, it's amazing what she achieved. There are still the legislative elections, and we will continue this great dynamism.”
Rosie Nahounou, a 40-year-old event organiser, said she would be happy even if Ms Le Pen lost. “I am happy, it is the victory of the people against capitalism, against this finance which has no feelings, it is heartless. Being in the second round is a victory.”
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