That there is hope for France, Europe and the world is the popular sentiment as Emmanuel Macron became the first French president in 20 years to win a second term. He may have defeated his far-right rival Marine Le Pen to secure another five years at the helm of Europe’s second economy, but with the narrowing margin of victory in an increasingly polarised country, Macron could be headed for another rocky tenure, not to forget his success that’s dampened by the lowest turnout in half a century.
It is not over yet. The National Assembly elections in June are looming large. Macron will need to reach out to the youth, the abstainers and voters of Le Pen. If he does not have a clear victory, France could be paralysed for the next five years.
'Not to Support Me, But to Stop the Far-Right'
In 2017, Macron swept to power with a promise of radically reshaping French politics. But the last five years saw widespread protests throughout the country, led by a large group of people who have felt that he has not represented their interests. Macron's domineering style has been seen by voters as arrogant, further angering those who have opposed him, not to forget the at-times riotous Gillet Jaunes (yellow vests).
This election victory is a chance for Macron to course-correct. And I think he recognises the anger people have against him, that the vote was more against Le Pen than for him.
He acknowledged that when he said in his acceptance speech, “I know that a number of French people have voted for me today, not to support my ideas but to stop the ideas of the far-right,” and called upon supporters to be “kind and respectful” to others, because the country was riven by “so much doubt, so much division”.
He added, “I’m not the candidate of one camp anymore, but the President of all of us.”
During the final two weeks of campaigning, Macron tried hard to shake off the tag of being a “President of the rich”. He promised to dedicate the next five years to restoring France to full employment and putting an end to the country’s decades of mass unemployment. He had promised that his new package of laws would address the cost-of-living crisis and the question of raising the retirement age. But as the elections closed in, he focused less on his own manifesto and more on stopping the “unthinkable” – the far-right, anti-immigration Le Pen leading France, Europe’s second-biggest economy and a nuclear power.
The Winning Margin Has Shrunk
Although centrist Macron obtained 58.4% of the votes while his nationalist and far-right rival Le Pen got 41.46%, in 2017, when the two politicians had contested the second round of the French presidential vote, Macron won with 66.1% versus Le Pen’s 33.9% votes. While it was no nail-biting finish as pollsters had predicted, the narrowing margin is a matter of concern for Macron. No wonder that after the election results, Le Pen, while conceding defeat, told her supporters, “We have, nevertheless, been victorious.”
The divisions in the French society are gaping. Le Pen benefitted from her change of stance as she became more moderate, avoiding the sensitive issue of migration, headscarf ban and anti-European integration. Instead, she spoke of inflation and the weaker purchasing power of the common man. It was a fight between the centre-right and far-right; the left was left hanging dry.
But now, one of the immediate challenges that Macron faces is the upcoming parliamentary elections for the National Assembly in June, which will show whether Macron will be able to easily pass new laws or face tough roadblocks to seeing his pro-business and pro-European Union (EU) agenda through.
As for Le Pen, this is now the third consecutive election she has lost. In 2011, she took the party reins, then called ‘National Front’, from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the party, in an effort to make it electable. She ran for the President’s election in 2012, 2017 and 2022 and came second in the last two elections.
Many political analysts in France are now of the opinion that she may not survive the next five years as the leader of the French far-right as she and her party are faced with a fierce challenge from the far-right Eric Zemmour and her own niece, Marion Maréchal.
Le Pen Lost the Election, But the Impact of Her Politics Remains
Le Pen has, nevertheless, succeeded in creating a shift in French polity, which, dangerously, has created a deep division in society. If you look at the polls for the second round, a great degree of support came from the 18-34 years age group, especially women, who work in semi-skilled, skilled or unskilled jobs and find themselves on the wrong side of globalisation and automation. Thereby, her call for stricter immigration appealed to them. In fact, in the final days of campaigning, Le Pen stopped speaking about the headscarf ban and distanced herself from her anti-Eurozone rhetoric.
Under the shadow of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, the win of euro-enthusiast Macron has been greatly welcomed. The European Council president, Charles Michel, said on Twitter: “Bravo Emmanuel. In this turbulent period, we need a solid Europe and a France totally committed to a more sovereign and more strategic European Union.” The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said: “I am delighted to be able to continue our excellent cooperation.” The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said French voters had delivered “a strong message in favour of Europe”.
Currently holding the Presidency of the Council of Europe, Macron has never shied away from making clear his ambitions for the bloc and has used every opportunity to bring solidarity and democracy to the heart of the European project.
At a time when Europe is more united than ever, Macron’s election victory will help him put to motion his long-held plans to increase Europe’s reliance on its own essential infrastructure and technologies, and drive for making Europe a military power in itself.
He has held conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but this victory could give him confidence in his effort to get Putin to change direction.
In contrast, with a pro-Russian stance, a Le Pen victory would have meant drastic changes to France’s relationship with the EU and NATO. France is the EU’s second-largest economy and has nuclear weapons.
France's Climate Action and the Expectations of the Far-Left
France has been under scrutiny for its commitment to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, and the fact is that a significant number of the 7.7 million first-round voters for the radical left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who narrowly missed reaching the final, had said that they felt torn over abstaining or voting to keep out Le Pen. In the final days of campaigning, Macron tried courting left voters, promising an expansion of the environmental policy and speeding up action against climate change. His first task now is to appoint a new Prime Minister, who he promised would be specifically devoted to addressing the climate crisis.
However, ultra-left groups have been demonstrating in various French cities against Macron’s re-election and Le Pen’s score. The French society clearly stands deeply divided, and Macron knows that. He has promised to rebuild ties with those who abstained or voted against Le Pen and not for him. He has vowed to unite a divided France. He will have to keep that promise. He will have to prove he is the “President for all of us”.
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)