The 44-year-old centrist makes history again
IN A REMARKABLE result that defied modern precedent, Emmanuel Macron was on April 24th re-elected president of France. In the second and final round of voting, the centrist incumbent secured an impressive 58.2% of the vote, soundly defeating the nationalist-populist Marine Le Pen, who scored 41.8%, according to initial estimates released by Ipsos, a polling group, as voting closed. Mr Macron is the first sitting French president to have been re-elected for 20 years. He also now becomes the only president under the Fifth Republic to have been returned to office by direct universal suffrage while holding a parliamentary majority.
The result was a personal victory for Mr Macron, who has only run for election twice in his life: each time for the presidency, and each time with success. His fledgling political party, now called La République en Marche (LREM), was set up only six years ago. The last time the French re-elected an incumbent—Jacques Chirac, in 2002—Mr Macron was a student intern in Nigeria, studying for a degree at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.
It was also, at least partially, a victory for centrist, broadly liberal, pro-European politics over the forces of populism. Mr Macron framed the run-off vote as one for or against tolerance, freedom, respect and the European Union. For her part, Ms Le Pen called it a choice between the people and the cosy “globalist” elite of Paris.
In the end enough voters, especially those on the left who dislike Mr Macron and did not back him in the first round on April 10th, decided to swing behind him in the second, if only to keep Ms Le Pen out. Turnout was estimated to be 72%, nearly three points below that in 2017 and one of the lowest for a French presidential election, although still higher than in national votes in Britain and America.
The final result matched polling trends during the two-week run-off campaign. Before the first round of voting on April 10th, the dynamic was in Ms Le Pen’s favour. Styling herself the voice of “the people”, she had led a shrewd campaign focused on rural and semi-rural areas and places hit by industrial decline, where her vote is strongest. She dwelt on the cost of living, which is voters’ top concern.
Mr Macron left it woefully late to start campaigning in earnest.
But in the run-up to the second round, the polls shifted Mr Macron’s way. During their head-to-head debate, he laid into Ms Le Pen’s links to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, calling him her “banker” due to a still-outstanding loan her party took out with a Russian bank in 2014. He also exposed her inconsistencies over taxation, Europe, energy policy and more. The final vote confirmed the widening poll lead that he managed to open up in the closing days of the campaign.
Mr Macron’s victory was decisive, but it also carries warnings. In 2002 Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, scored a mere 18% when he reached the presidential run-off. In 2017, when Mr Macron defeated Ms Le Pen for the first time, she nearly doubled her father’s result, securing 34% of the second-round vote. She may now have lost the election again. But Ms Le Pen has never come so close to winning the highest office, backed by a good share of the 58% who in the first round preferred a populist, radical or extremist.
The flipside of Mr Macron’s success in forging an exceptionally broad-based government, bringing in former Greens, Socialists, centrists and centre-right Republicans is that the loudest opposition is now found on the extremes. Mr Macron cannot be blamed for the mediocre presidential campaigns led by candidates from the formerly mainstream parties, which he has crushed at national level but which still run almost all towns and regions across France. Yet the upshot is that the champions for the discontented are now Ms Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the radical left, who came third in the first round. Each will do their best, in different ways, to make life difficult for Mr Macron in his second term.
Opposition could come from parliament. Tradition dictates that the current prime minister, Jean Castex, will resign on April 25th, the day after the election, and a new interim government—possibly led again by Mr Castex—will take the country into two-round parliamentary elections on June 12th and 19th. There is no guarantee that LREM and its friends will hold on to their majority. Mr Mélenchon may well build on his radical-left bloc. But Mr Macron still stands a fair chance of winning another majority, thanks to a cluster of friendly movements that he is putting together. This will include Horizons, a new party set up by Edouard Philippe, his ex-Republican former prime minister.
The greater risk for Mr Macron’s second term, though, may come from the streets. Unions will be in no mood to accept his pledge to raise the retirement age from 62 years to 65. Teachers will contest plans to give them extra work. Above all, those who feel that representative democracy is no longer working for them—the disenfranchised, angry, forgotten or disillusioned, who feel unrepresented by Mr Macron—will seek a way to make their grievances heard, just as the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) protesters did in 2018-2019.
Mr Macron has now kept the forces of populism out of France’s highest office twice. It is quite some feat, and for this history will judge him well. Most of the European Union, and the Western alliance, will breathe a sigh of relief. But the second-term president now has his work cut out if he is to renew the appeal of liberal politics, and reverse the steadily growing success of the extremes.
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April 24th 2022 | Paris