PARIS – Emmanuel Macron has become the first sitting president of France to win re-election since 2002. He gained 58.5 per cent of the vote against his opponent, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who scored 41.5 per cent in the second round of voting. Turnout, at 72 per cent, was the lowest for over half a century.
The mood at Macron’s election night event on Sunday evening was of clear relief. Macron, who walked on stage to the sound of “Ode to Joy”, the European anthem, gave a short victory speech in which he recognised the unique position he is now in. Speaking in front of a glittering Eiffel Tower, he acknowledged that millions had voted not for him but rather to keep out Le Pen’s National Rally. Millions more had not voted, indicating a refusal to choose between the two candidates on offer. “I know that many of my compatriots voted for me not to back my ideas, but to keep out those of the far right,” he told his audience.
“This vote obliges me,” Macron said, borrowing the phrase used by his predecessor Jacques Chirac in 2002, also elected against the far right. At the time, many had hoped that Chirac would lead a broad-based government, only to be disappointed when the president chose only centre-right ministers. Macron promised that his next term would not be a continuation of the last five years but that his ambition is to deliver change via an entirely new political project. He pledged “a new era” and a “renewed method” of governance.
To what extent Macron is sincere about changing course from what has been largely a centre-right presidency, now that he is liberated from the constraints of needing to worry about winning re-election, will be interesting to watch. Who he names to his government and which allies he chooses ahead of the parliamentary elections will be a key early indicator.
The next big fight in French politics will be the legislative elections in June. The president’s party usually wins a majority, but in the context of unprecedented political realignment and rejection of both candidates, Macron’s opponents on the left and right last night were already pinning their hopes on another upending of precedent.
Here are a few general takeaways from the second round of the French presidential:
1. This election did not turn out to be particularly close. Despite a few polls showing Le Pen and Macron neck and neck just before the first round two weeks ago, Macron’s lead steadily grew during the inter-round campaign. A margin of 17 points is smaller than five years ago and an impressive result for Le Pen, who has led the far right to its best score in postwar history. But it indicates that for now at least, the far right is still far from electable. This is not the type of margin indicating that Le Pen is completely normalised as a candidate.
2. The anti-Le Pen “republican front” is weaker than it has ever been, but it held. According to the pollster Ipsos, 42 per cent of voters for Jean-Luc Mélenchon chose Macron, dashing Le Pen’s hopes of peeling off enough left-wingers to allow her to squeak through. Clear majorities of voters for other defeated candidates, including the Green Yannick Jadot and the centre-right candidate Valérie Pécresse, chose Macron.
3. Even so, the far right has continued its upwards trajectory that began 20 years ago. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen gained 18 per cent of the vote against Jacques Chirac. Five years ago, his daughter gained 34 per cent of the vote. She has now crossed the 40 per cent threshold. There is no guarantee that the far-right will be able to continue its growth but it is now the strongest it has ever been in postwar history.
4. This election was characterised by a rejection of both candidates, perhaps more than any other in history. That, combined with the weakness of the traditional parties, spells a likely political realignment on all sides ahead of the parliamentary elections in June. Macron’s centre may gobble up much of the liberal wing of the Republicans, and, if he is sincere about his leftwards tilt, more of the centre-left too. Eric Zemmour and Le Pen may find some accommodation to avoid splitting the nationalist right. Mélenchon will be seeking to unify the left, the division of which he blames for having robbed him of a place in the run-off.
5. Macron will face accusations of weak legitimacy from the outset. He is the only president in history to have faced a far-right candidate in two second rounds. His opponents will say he has been elected by default twice, to keep the other person out rather than positively choose him. That question of a weak mandate is likely to dog him from the start, but the question is how effectively his political opponents can capitalise on it, particularly in the campaign for the parliamentary elections.