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Emmanuel Macron on the day of his inauguration (©Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)

Listening to the inauguration speech of Emanuel Macron in the Salle des Fêtes of the Elysée Palace on May 14, some of his audience were reminded of a little boy’s birthday wish list. France was being reborn, a new era of equality and social justice was dawning, and Europe too would soon undergo the necessary reforms. Either President Macron is everything his spin doctors have claimed, or a country that has placed a completely unknown quantity at its head is in for a rude awakening.

Beyond the palace walls, the corpses of France’s big political beasts lie scattered across the battlefield. To the left the outgoing president, François Hollande, makes a pathetic figure, so unpopular after five ineffectual years that he was too weak to stand for his own re-election. His reign ended in a cruel public humiliation, the handover of power to a man half his age whom he had plucked from obscurity and who in return had manipulated him and abused his trust. At the same time the Socialist Party which he led for 20 years was chopped into little pieces, its presidential candidate polling an ignominious 6.4 per cent.

To the right the chosen candidate, François Fillon, once prime minister of France and until last February the undisputed favourite to win the election, finds himself turned into a laughing stock, forced to resign his seat in the National Assembly, with his wife and two of his children joining him in the public prosecutor’s outer office, an “exemplary Catholic” family facing criminal charges. Meanwhile his former colleagues, the leaders of the Republican Party, once powerful figures such as ex-President Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Alain Juppé, are undecided as to whether they should oppose the new president or offer their full support — “in the national interest” — to a man they despise.

Most presidential elections end in the triumph of one candidate and the destruction of another. In this case, it is a political system and possibly a constitution that seem to have been destroyed.

Of the many numbers to have emerged from the victory of Macron and the defeat of Marine Le Pen in the second round of the election on 7 May the most significant is surely 34 per cent, the total of abstentions and spoilt ballots. This amounts to more than 16 million voters — that is six million more votes than were cast for the runner-up. It is a record for the Fifth Republic, which was founded almost 60 years ago.

Most of those 16 million protesters simply stayed at home, but more than    four million took the trouble to visit their local town hall and invalidate their ballot papers. Some just put a blank slip in the envelope, others wrote an offensive comment. One man — or woman — put a €50 note inside with a message reading “For poor Penelope” — the hapless Madame Fillon (née Clarke, in Abergavenny) accused of taking €680,000 of public money for a non-existent job as her husband’s parliamentary assistant. The refusal to vote was known as the “Ni-ni” response — “neither Macron Nor Le Pen” — and is explained by the fact that without a mainstream candidate from either Left or Right, more than a third of the second-round electorate felt disenfranchised.

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