First came the blue lights, then the music worthy of a world championship boxing match. The contender advanced and the noise steadily increased around the auditorium. The flags were raised, and Marine Le Pen addressed the room. She accused her opponent in the run-off, Emmanuel Macron, of being “the heir of Francois Hollande” while presenting herself as “the candidate of the people” who “appeals to all patriots”.
Ms Le Pen, in a chest-thumping speech to cheering supporters, declared that she embodied “the great alternative” for French voters. She portrayed her duel with Mr Macron as a battle between “patriots” and “wild deregulation” – warning of job losses overseas, mass migration straining resources at home and “the free circulation of terrorists”.
“The time has come to free the French people,” she said at her election day headquarters in the northern French town of Henin-Beaumont, adding that nothing short of “the survival of France” will be at stake in the second and final round of the election.
“The great issue in this election is the rampant globalisation that is putting our civilisation at risk,” she declared, describing Mr Macron as “the money king” in a disparaging swipe at his investment banker background.
To say the words went down well is a gross understatement. Her speech ended with an ovation, a bouquet of blue roses was offered to her, and the leader of the Front National (FN), lead a rendition of the Marseillaise by the whole hall.
Ms Le Pen's supporters lapped up her rhetoric. “Her speech was very clear, she made the French understand that there is a patriotic position [the FN] and an ultra-liberal and ultra-globalist position [Emmanuel Macron],” says Lionel David, a 45-year-old physician. Jean-Claude Melayers, 72, who is retired, adds: “The challenge is to choose between globalisation, finance or France identity.”
Ms Le Pen's supporters had been having fun all evening, despite the tight security that meant a long wait to get into the venue – ironically named the “François Mitterrand Centre” after the late Socialist president – where she chose to celebrate her advance into the second round of voting.
The town of Henin-Beaumont is an FN stronghold, so having portrayed herself as outside the Parisian elite, it made sense to greet her supporters here, away from the capital – and her supporters greeted her like a hero.
The countdown was shown on the screen and the crowd screamed in unison: 5, 4, 3, 2 ...1. The first projections of the vote were displayed: Mr Macron ahead, followed by Ms Le Pen. The room shuddered with joy, the crowd of supporters jumped and screamed and shook hands. Only the vision of Emmanuel Macron on the screen brought a few whistles.
Benoît Hamon, the unfortunate Socialist candidate, was the first to speak on the night, displayed on the big screen. He called for supporters to vote for Emmanuel Macron, an announcement welcomed by scattered boos by the FN supporters, although they paid little attention to him. They shrugged their shoulders when asked about Mr Hamon. But they were ecstatic when it came to their champion.
When centre-right candidate François Fillon appeared on the screen, to express himself solemnly, he was not only welcomed by the traditional whistles which greet all the opponents, but by cries “Fillon in jail” – a nod to the scandals that have engulfed his campaign. When he too called for his supporters to vote for Mr Macron, there followed a general booing.
“Fillon is a coward, he has no conviction,” said Eve Froger, a 21-year-old law student. “He tried to assume the ideas of Marine Le Pen when it comes to the family, the fight against terrorism and now he wants to defend the one who will destroy family and the security of France,” Ms Froger adds.
“We are the France of patriots,” says Milevia Mangano, a 21-year-old business student. He believes “in the economic program of Marine Le Pen”. He adds: "We want a Europe of free nations, we want to regain our sovereignty.“
Members of Ms Le Pen's campaign team confirmed to The Independent that the FN leader's speech was a launch pad for her run at the second round. “She raised the true issue at stake in the second round: globalists against patriots,” one said.
Ms Le Pen was not the only one to portray herself as an outsider. In a speech in Paris, Mr Macron – the 39-year-old who has never held elected office – said he wanted to gather “the largest possible” support before the 7 May run-off. He praised his supporters for a campaign that “changed the course of our country”.
Urging hope in Europe instead of fear – a reference to Ms Le Pen's anti-European Union campaign – Mr Macron acknowledged widespread anger at traditional parties and promised “new transformations” in French politics.
Polls project that Mr Macron will win the second round comfortably, although last night Ms Le Pen's supporters seemed to put the forthcoming battle off, for one night at least, and let the champagne flow while dancing into the night.
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