Oyou could almost hear the sighs of relief, from Paris to Brussels, and all the way to Washington, as French leader Emmanuel Macron landed another five-year term at the Elysee Palace. Although polls tightened at times ahead of Sunday’s run-off, Macron eventually beat far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in the presidential election – a contest that risked shattering the Western alliance against Russia and jeopardize the very survival of the European Union.
Macron’s victory over Le Pen, with 58.2% of the vote to 41.8%, according to estimated results released at 8 p.m. local time after the polls closed, was significantly lower than the last confrontation of the two politicians in 2017. At the time, 39-year-old Macron came to power as an underdog, with a 32-point lead over Le Pen, promising to modernize what he called a country ossified and over-regulated.
Over the past five years, he has simplified French labor law, making it easier for companies to hire and fire, and abolished wealth tax. But he was forced to scrap a fuel tax hike, when the plan sparked the so-called “yellow vests” movement, with explosive protests that rocked the country for months in 2018 and 2019. Then is came COVID-19 in 2020, with nationwide protests. lockdowns, in a pandemic that has so far killed 142,000 people in France. And as that receded, war in Ukraine erupted, pushing Macron into the role of the EU’s main go-between with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Read more: Emmanuel Macron is on the right track to be re-elected. What comes next might be harder
For all of this, Macron, 44, has achieved an impressive feat: he is the first French leader in 20 years to be re-elected – since 2002, when then-President Jacques Chirac won against the fiercely anti- Le Pen’s immigrant, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who faced a wall of opposition that blocked his path to power.
Macron managed this despite barely campaigning for months, preferring instead to play the global statesman in the build-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Then, in just a few weeks, Macron sprinted across France, warning voters that a Le Pen presidency would ravage their cherished humanist principles and render the 27-nation EU untenable. “April 24 will be a referendum for or against Europe, and we are for it!” he told thousands of people in the final hours of the campaign on Friday, standing in a market in the southern village of Figeac, amid a sea of blue, EU flags in the crowd.
Yet even so, his narrow 16.4% winning margin signals the difficult political divide he now faces as he re-establishes himself at the Elysee Palace – issues that could play out in the country’s legislative elections. , which take place in just seven weeks.
No longer the prodigy, Macron will have to reckon with seething anger over his pro-business policies, including his determination to raise the public retirement age. And there is also the deep personal dislike of Macron among many French people, who portray him in numerous opinion polls and to journalists as arrogant and aloof, and too stubborn for the interests of the wealthy. “He will have to demonstrate that he is not going to govern as he did in his first term, all alone,” Marc Lazar, professor of political history at Sciences Po Paris, told TIME on Sunday evening, while it was becoming clear that Macron had won. . “He will have to negotiate more and look for compromises.”
Struggling to make ends meet amid rising inflation and meager wages and pensions, many said they did not fit Macron’s vision of a globalized, EU-centric France. “Macron doesn’t care about the French,” Le Pen voter Paméla Loire told TIME in the northern village of Beaucamps-le-Vieux earlier this month.
In a blitz of campaign stops, Macron told voters he had created 1 million new jobs since 2017 and spent billions to pay people’s salaries in coronavirus relief funds. The government’s official unemployment figure of 7.4% is the lowest in 13 years.
Yet even so, more than half of voters in the first round of the April 10 election chose far-right or far-left politicians out of 12 candidates, reflecting widespread anxiety and discontent at the regard to the dominant policy. “There is a sense of decline,” Nicolas Becuwe, senior director of Kantar Public in Brussels, said Thursday during an online presentation of the polling firm’s data across the EU. “France is the most pessimistic country in all of Europe”.
Official campaign posters of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally (RN) party and French President Emmanuel Macron “La République en Marche” (LREM), candidates for the 2022 French presidential election on April 23, 2022 in Paris, France.
Photo illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images
Le Pen tapped into this malaise and in the process won a significant victory, but not the presidency. She has made her far-right National Rally party a force in French politics, compared to the miniscule 18% of votes her father received in 2002.
Renovating her image, Le Pen, 53, presented herself as a champion of the have-nots, focusing more on the economy than her fiercely anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views. She promised to cut sales tax and eliminate income tax for those under 30, regardless of France’s rising public debt. Macron, she told voters, embodied “power without empathy.”
Macron fired back, hammering her during the nearly three-hour election debate last Wednesday, over his stance against the country’s roughly 6 million Muslims. He told Le Pen that his plan to ban Muslim women from wearing the headscarf in public would “create a civil war”.
Read more: How the far right has already won in France
Le Pen also faced another electoral hurdle: his long admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Until last week, many of Le Pen’s campaign pamphlets included a photo of her shaking hands with Putin during a visit to the Kremlin in 2017. She funded his presidential run against Macron that year with a loan of 12 million euros from a bank linked to the Kremlin. , which is now owned by a Russian military contractor – a debt Le Pen still owes.
Macron took advantage of this during the election debate, telling her that she “depends on Mr Putin”. “When you talk to Russia… you talk to your banker,” he said.
As Europe faces the biggest conflict since World War II, Le Pen nonetheless said that as president she would remove France, which has the strongest military in the EU, from command. NATO’s integrated military, which would deeply damage the West’s united support for Ukraine.
All of these concerns crystallized in the final days of the campaign, as Macron and Le Pen scoured France, trying to woo the 7.7 million people who had voted for far-left leader Mélenchon in the first round.
Although Macron won on Sunday, around 28.2% of the electorate did not vote at all – the highest abstention rate since 1969 – and many people told reporters in recent days that they had rejected both choices on the ballot. This high abstention rate could bode well for the president’s second term. “Macron will have to try to talk to all French people, to bridge the big gap between his supporters and Le Pen’s voters, and the people who didn’t vote,” says Lazar, professor of political history at Sciences Po, where Many students have joined protests over the past two weeks, saying that much like the 2017 election, none of the candidates reflected their interests.
However, even Macron’s most vocal critics had pleaded with voters not to vent their anger at Macron by voting for Le Pen. Leaders of the country’s two powerful labor coalitions – millions of whose members have staged protests and strikes for years against Macron’s policies – reminded voters on Thursday that Le Pen’s National Rally party is “deeply rooted in the history of the French extreme right, racist, homophobic and sexist.” Yet they refrained from telling their members to vote for Macron.
The left party Release The paper – which has been attacking Macron for years – went further, publishing a weekend front page in fire alarm red, with giant lettering reading ‘Let’s vote against the far right’ and a ballot bearing the name of Macron. “Faced with a possible victory of the extreme right in France, it is not possible to abstain”, write the editors inside. “We must vote for Emmanuel Macron.”
And on Sunday, millions of French voters did just that.
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