PARIS – Emmanuel Macron has secured a comfortable victory against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election despite widespread political discontent leading to the lowest turnout in more than half a century.
The incumbent Macron, of the political party La République en Marche, is on course to win a bitterly fought contest with a vote share of between 57.3% and 58.2%, according to analyses – based on sample votes from about 300 polling stations across the country – produced by several French broadcasters.
Despite the fact that final polling averages showed Macron some 10 percentage points ahead of Le Pen, with the gap widening after a tight finish in the first round of the election two weeks ago, the result will be a huge relief for leaders across Europe.
Macron, who will continue to lead the European Union’s second-largest economy and lone nuclear power for another five years, is only the third French president to be re-elected during the Fifth Republic, which began in 1958.
“This is a clear victory,” said Clément Beaune, the secretary of state for European affairs under Macron. “It’s important, it’s very important, because this was a political combat, a political combat against the far right.”
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted her “congratulations” to Macron, “[rejoicing] to be able to continue our excellent cooperation. Together, we will move France and Europe forward.”
But while the margin of victory is significant, the result represents a tightening of the voting since the pair faced off in 2017, when Macron resoundingly beat his right-wing National Rally party opponent with 66.1% of the vote.
Le Pen, who had pledged to hold a referendum on immigration, ban the Muslim headscarf from public places, withdraw from NATO and oppose an embargo on Russian oil and gas, gained the highest-ever vote share for the far right.
In the aftermath of the election result, Le Pen appeared to reverse her previous comments about planning to retire and insisted she would “continue my commitment to France and to the French”, adding: “This is not yet over.”
Concerns over the potential for high numbers of hesitant voters or those opting to abstain entirely that dominated the last weeks of the election campaign came to fruition. The abstention rate among France’s 48.8 million eligible voters is projected to be 28%, the highest since 1959, in a sign of the public’s unhappiness over the choice of candidates on offer.
“The high abstention is very concerning,” says Isabelle Le Breton-Falézan, a lecturer in French political science at the Sorbonne University. “In 2017, Macron was seen as optimistic, a new promise, a disruptor. That’s not the case any more. This represents a rejection of both candidates and not a vote of support for Macron. His legitimacy might be questioned.”
Macron, a 44-year-old former Rothschild banker, has been regularly accused by critics of being an arrogant “president of the rich” and his first term saw millions take to the streets to protest under the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, an anti-establishment movement that came to symbolize those forgotten by his government.
Macron’s election strategy positioned himself as a lesser of two evils and drew on the “Republican Front” – an historic coalition of voters who despite political differences traditionally mobilize to prevent a far-right presidency, as was seen in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, was beaten by Jacques Chirac.
While the French economy has performed impressively through the pandemic, voters have been unhappy with Macron's increasingly right-wing and pro-business agenda, including tax cuts for businesses and the highest earners and policies that critics said targeted Muslims and opened up space for the far right in French politics.
“What we’ll have to remember is that Macron has helped mainstream a lot of far right ideas and discourse,” says Aurelien Mondon, an expert in the political mainstreaming of the French far right at Bath University. “He’s made it stronger and legitimized it further. Will he still continue to do so in his second term?”
In a televised debate on Wednesday, Macron performed strongly and spoke about links between Le Pen’s far-right party and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her National Rally party took several loans from Russia in 2014, including a $9.75 million loan from the Kremlin-linked First Czech Russian Bank.
But analysts say despite his victory on Sunday Macron faces significant obstacles in obtaining sufficient support in the National Assembly elections in June to be able to govern effectively, and will face a country where only a minority enthusiastically support his liberal internationalist outlook. In the first round of the election, nearly 60% of voters supported candidates of the far right or far left.
“It’s going to be a serious challenge,” adds Le Breton-Falézan. “The legislative elections will be very different to the presidential elections and Macron’s party is much more fragile.”
The left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has emerged as a surprise kingmaker after coming third place in the first round with 21% of the vote, has called on voters to make him prime minister in the legislative elections.
“Madame Le Pen has been beaten,” said Mélenchon in reaction to the results. “France has clearly refused to entrust its future to her, and this is very good news for the unity of our people. However, Emmanuel Macron has become the most poorly elected president of the Fifth Republic. His victory is floating in an ocean of abstentions and spoiled ballots.”