Macron beats Le Pen again as France rallies once more against the far right

French President Emmanuel Macron has once again seen off his far-right rival Marine Le Pen to secure five years more years at the helm of Europe’s second economy. But the botched campaign and narrowing margin of victory herald another rocky term for the incumbent, whose success was tarnished by the lowest turnout in half a century.

Macron, 44, is the first president to secure re-election since Jacques Chirac 20 years ago. His back-to-back wins are no small feat in a country that has recently developed a taste for kicking out the incumbent at the first opportunity. It helped that on both occasions he faced a political force that a (shrinking) majority of the French still considers unfit for government.

At 58.8% to Le Pen’s 41.2%, Macron’s margin of victory ultimately exceeded most pollsters’ forecasts. Still, Sunday’s rematch produced a much closer outcome than in 2017, when the political upstart carried the day with 66 percent of the vote. On her third attempt, Le Pen has moved another step closer to the Élysée Palace. Not since World War II has the nationalist far right come this close to power in France.

“The ideas we represent have reached new heights,” Le Pen told supporters in a defiant speech, hailing a “startling victory” even as she conceded defeat. The 53-year-old vowed to “keep up the fight” and lead the battle against Macron in parliamentary elections in June.

French presidential election © France 24

After a turbulent five years in office marked by violent protests and a succession of Covid lockdowns and curfews, Macron relied on an uncertain coalition of ardent supporters and reluctant “tactical” voters determined to keep Le Pen out of power. In the end, it proved more than enough to hold off the “anti-Macron front” summoned by his challenger.  

Le Pen had sought to frame the election as a referendum on the incumbent. She urged voters to “choose between Macron and France”. Some did see the contest that way – but more chose between Le Pen and the Republic. 

“Many of our compatriots voted for me not out of support for my ideas but to block those of the extreme right,” Macron told supporters at the Eiffel Tower, striking a more humble tone than he had on the campaign trail. “I want to thank them and I know that I have a duty towards them in the years to come,” he added, perhaps hinting at a more grounded style for the years to come. 

‘Europe wins’ 

The stakes were huge in Sunday’s election. Victory for Le Pen would have sent shockwaves around the European Union, which she vowed to radically reform once in power, remodelling it as an “alliance of nations”. 

The far-right leader insisted she had no “secret agenda” to drag France – a founding member of the EU – out of the 27-nation bloc, its single currency or its passport-free Schengen zone. But Macron warned her policies would effectively lead to a “Frexit” by stealth. He described the contest as a “referendum for or against Europe”. 

That’s certainly how many of his European peers saw it too. They rushed to congratulate Macron on his re-election, hailing the incumbent’s victory as a victory for Europe too. The result means the European Union “can count on France for five more years”, said the head of the European Council, Charles Michel. 

European leaders quick to congratulate Macron in EU sigh of relief

Italian Premier Mario Draghi hailed Macron’s victory as “splendid news for all of Europe” and a boost to the EU “being a protagonist in the greatest challenges of our times, starting with the war in Ukraine”. “Democracy wins, Europe wins,” added his Spanish counterpart Pedro Sanchez. 

In a highly unusual move, Sanchez had joined the leaders of Germany and Portugal in signing an open letter just days before the election, in which they urged French voters to weigh the historical significance of their vote. 

“It’s the election between a democratic candidate who believes that France’s strength broadens in a powerful and autonomous European Union and an extreme-right candidate who openly sides with those who attack our freedom and democracy, values based on the French ideas of Enlightenment,” they wrote, without mentioning Macron or Le Pen by name. 

‘Not so much a duel as a duo’ 

In his victory speech in 2017, Macron had promised to “do everything” in his power to ensure the French “have no longer any reason to vote for the extremes”. Five years later, the far right has surged to its best-ever score and the mainstream centre-left has been supplanted by a more radical force.   

That populist, anti-establishment parties should have come closer to power than ever before is hardly a surprise. Having completed his takeover of the political mainstream, Macron has left space only for radical forces to flourish. There can be no democracy without the possibility of an alternative. Right now, the only alternatives thrive outside the mainstream. 

“I don’t mean to spoil the victory, but the [far right] has won its highest ever score,” Macron’s Health Minister Olivier Véran cautioned on Sunday. “There will be continuity in government policy because the president has been re-elected. But we have also heard the French people’s message. There will be a change of method, the French people will be consulted.” 

French President Emmanuel Macron takes part in a video-conference of G7 leaders on Ukraine crisis at the Élysée Palace in Paris, on February 24, 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron takes part in a video-conference of G7 leaders on Ukraine crisis at the Élysée Palace in Paris, on February 24, 2022. © Ludovic Marin, Pool via Reuters

Dismal turnout suggests the message from voters was one of widespread rejection. At 28%, the rate of abstention was the highest in half a century, second only to the unconsequential duel between Gaullist and centre-right candidates in 1969. Adding voters who cast blank or spoiled ballots, more than a third of voters refused to back either finalist. The figures reflect widespread dismay at a campaign 80% of voters described as “poor quality” and a rematch the French have long said they didn’t want.

“Theirs is not so much a duel as a duo,” muttered the conservative Les Républicains leader Christian Jacob, a representative of the rapidly decaying “old-world” establishment parties squeezed out by the tussle between Macron and Le Pen.

Rightly or wrongly, the perception that the incumbent did everything in his power to engineer a repeat of the lopsided contest of 2017, framing the political debate as a showdown between the liberal mainstream and Eurosceptic populists, angered voters and left many feeling trapped.

Across France, voters complained of being arm-twisted into choosing “the lesser of two evils”, while students took to occupying university campuses in protest at the choice of finalists. Macron’s government had alienated many young voters with its rants against “woke” ideas and “Islamo-leftism” in academia. Brutal police clampdowns on protesters also blurred the line between the far right and mainstream in the eyes of some, encouraging the spread of the slogan, “Neither Le Pen, nor Macron”. 

As left-wing voters dithered ahead of the second round, weary of having to vote once more to keep the Le Pen clan at bay, the extent of their resentment became apparent to all who hadn’t yet noticed.

Macron’s fightback

At 27.8%, Macron’s first-round tally on April 10 marked an improvement on his score from 2017. But a depleted reservoir of votes and the back-handed endorsements of mainstream opponents sent a clear message to the incumbent: he would have to work his socks off in between the two rounds to sway a deeply sceptical nation.

Macron did just that. He hit the ground running the next morning, mingling with sometimes angry crowds in stricken towns that had backed Le Pen or third-placed Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the veteran leftist whose 22% support became the most coveted pool of votes for both finalists.

Having governed and then campaigned to the right of centre right up to the first round, Macron swung the other way in the following days. He overtly borrowed the language of the left at a rally in Marseille, promising to put “ecological planning” at the heart of his second term. He then wrapped up his campaign in the immigrant-rich northern suburbs of Paris, trading jabs at a boxing club with youths who overwhelmingly backed Mélenchon in the first round.

The night before, Macron had taken the gloves off in a bruising televised debate, determined to corner his opponent. It was a stunning reversal of roles after Le Pen’s kamikaze onslaught of 2017. Macron did not settle for a defensive win this time. He went for the kill, in the words of French daily Le Monde, “suffocating his opponent like a boa constrictor”.

Le Pen had spent the past five years trying to erase memories of her catastrophic first debate, which even she has admitted was a flop. She sought to project an image of competence and composure throughout the campaign, toning down her rhetoric and trademark belligerence in favour of a more “presidential” pitch.

But her attempt to dispel concerns about her fitness for the job was largely derailed as Macron zeroed in on her ties to Russia and her plans to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public, which he said ran contrary to the Republic’s secular values and threatened to trigger “civil war” in France.

Le Pen bristled at the incumbent’s charge that she was beholden to Moscow. She had hoped to land punches on the issues of poverty and spending power but struggled at times as Macron repeatedly questioned her grasp of economic figures. Crucially, she mostly failed to put the incumbent on the defensive, allowing him to evade scrutiny of his turbulent five years in office.

On to the ‘third round’

Macron’s victory caps a forgettable campaign upended by the war in Ukraine and hampered by a largely absent incumbent. Failure to challenge the president on his record means the contest will largely be remembered for Macron’s body language: his combative manner at the 11th hour, his highly memeable facial expressions during the debate, and his notorious photo-ops – from the Zelensky-like “hoodie-and-stubble” act to the hirsute chest revealed by a daringly unbuttoned shirt. 

The re-elected president won’t be leaning back on that leather sofa for long. After a rocky first term, he faces the prospect of an even tougher second mandate, with little to no grace period and voters of all stripes likely to take to the streets over his plan to continue pro-business reforms and get the French to work more and longer. 

Le Pen, Melenchon eye upcoming parliamentary elections

Eyes are already turning towards legislative elections in June, with Macron looking unlikely to repeat the coup that saw him pull a party and a majority out of his hat five years ago. Even as he hailed Le Pen’s defeat on Sunday, Mélenchon said there was still a chance to beat Macron in the June parliamentary polls – often dubbed the “third round” of the presidential election. 

Eyes are already turning towards legislative elections in June, with Macron looking unlikely to repeat the coup that saw him pull a party and a majority out of his hat five years ago. Even as he hailed Le Pen’s defeat on Sunday, Mélenchon said there was still a chance to beat Macron in June parliamentary polls – often dubbed the “third round” of the presidential election.

“[Macron] swims in an ocean of abstention and spoiled ballots,” warned the veteran leftist, pointing to the estimated 3 million people who cast blank or spoiled ballots on Sunday.

Results from the first round on April 10 signalled the emergence of three camps of roughly equal weight: a centre-right bloc gravitating around the incumbent Emmanuel Macron, a far-right bloc dominated by Le Pen, and a scattered left that tried – and narrowly failed – to prevent a rematch of 2017. How those three blocs will perform in June is anyone’s guess.

The presidential election leaves the tableau of a bitterly divided country, in which the chasm between urban centres and small-town, peripheral districts has only widened. Le Pen took just 5% of the first-round vote in the French capital; Macron did just as poorly in some rural areas. Between them, the two finalists won less than half the youth vote.

Rising abstention and increasingly violent protests have heightened scrutiny of a system that invests immense power and attention on the figure of the president. Designed to legitimise those sweeping powers by ensuring the president wins at least 50% of the popular vote, France’s two-round electoral system increasingly has the opposite effect, forcing voters into “tactical” choices and fuelling resentment.

As he campaigned ahead of the run-off, Macron disputed the fact that a “republican front” of anti-Le Pen voters was crucial to his landslide win in 2017, implying that voters had chosen him and his project. He set aside his hubris on Sunday night, acknowledging that voters had indeed rallied behind him in order to hold off the far right.

“We will have to be benevolent and respectful because our country is riddled with so many doubts, so many divisions,” he said at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, addressing voters who backed his adversary. “The anger and disagreements that drove them to back [the far right] must be answered. It will be my responsibility and that of the people who govern with me.”

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