WASHINGTON – French President Emmanuel Macron cruised to a second term Sunday, beating back a stronger-than-expected challenge from a far-right populist who has attacked the European Union and NATO and expressed support for Russia.
“I am no longer the candidate of one side, but instead the president for all,” Macron told cheering supporters who gathered near the Eiffel Tower to celebrate his reelection and the defeat of challenger Marine Le Pen.
In a rematch of the 2017 presidential election, Macron led Le Pen with more than 58% of the vote, according to projected results from the French news media, working with national pollsters.
Le Pen conceded shortly after the announced projection. She noted that she improved her performance from five years ago and will now concentrate on legislative elections for her party.
“The game is not completely over,” she told supporters.
Five years ago, Macron defeated Le Pen with more than 66% of the vote.
Macron, 44, who built his own political party to run for president in 2017, won again despite a first term beset by protests against his economic policies, the COVID-19 pandemic and, most recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine that roiled diplomatic relations across the globe.
In his victory speech, Macron acknowledged that French voters had expressed “anger” and he must now “respond effectively.”
Macron’s reelection also dealt a setback to the populist movements that have upended politics across the Western world, from Brexit to the successes of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Donald Trump in the United States.
“When one puts back together your project brick by brick, it’s a project that’s about getting out of the EU, even if it doesn’t explicitly say so,” Macron told Le Pen in their last debate.
US and EU officials relieved
American and European government officials greeted news of Macron’s reelection with relief. Some analysts in the United States pointed out Macron won despite approval ratings of less than 40% – about the same as President Joe Biden, who is contemplating a reelection run of his own in 2024.
“An interesting observation, just FYI,” tweeted White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. “President Macron appears to have secured a double-digit victory over LePen, at a time when his approval rating is 36%. Hmmm….”
Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, pointed out that another prominent European populist – Slovenia Prime Minister Janez Jansa – faced defeat on Sunday, according to vote projections.
Those losses could be “a giant victory for the renewal of democratic values in Europe and a huge setback for populist nationalism,” McFaul said. “Maybe the global tide is turning?”
Others pointed out that Le Pen did better in this French election than the one five years ago, and the conservative populist movement still has to be taken seriously in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Le Pen herself told supporters that “more than ever I will continue my work for the French.”
Far-right Le Pen came out strong after first round
Le Pen had come within 5 percentage points of Macron in the first round of voting two weeks ago, fanning fears of an ultranationalistic turn in French politics. Le Pen has long espoused an anti-immigrant agenda, and in this campaign, she called for banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public.
In a Friday interview on BFM television in France, Macron cast the election as a choice “between leaving or not leaving Europe” and “abandoning or not abandoning the secular republic.”
Le Pen, echoing the arguments of anti-globalists across the continent, said France had surrendered its sovereignty to multilateral organizations like the EU and NATO.
In the runup to Sunday’s election, French voters expressed anxiety over issues that have also shaped politics in the United States and elsewhere: inflation, a sluggish economy, fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Macron and Le Pen finished as the top two candidates from a crowded field after the first round of voting two weeks ago. In a closer-than-expected margin, Macron finished with 27.85% of the vote, and Le Pen with 23.15%.
The narrow margin prompted more political activity by Macron, who had focused on his government job and did very little campaigning before that first round.
Polls in recent days showed Macron expanding his lead, but the French president warned supporters not to take anything for granted.
Macron and Russia’s war in Ukraine
Macron has played a key role in organizing the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, promoting military assistance to the Ukrainians and economic sanctions on President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Le Pen has been sympathetic to Putin and Russia, and a victory by her would have been a big propaganda victory for Putin’s government.
Macron played on Le Pen’s ties to Russia during the campaign, telling her in one debate: “When you speak to Russia, you are speaking to your banker.” He also said her anti-Muslim policies would trigger a “civil war” in France.
After her loss in the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen sought to soften her image. She reversed her longtime opposition to the euro, the EU’s currency, and changed the national party from the “National Front” to “National Rally.”
This time around, Le Pen focused more on the economic anxiety expressed by many French voters. One of her targets: Macron’s plan to raise the pension age from 62 to 65.
The challenger said she wanted to “give the French their money back.”
A Le Pen victory would have meant drastic changes for the French and their relationship with the EU and NATO, organizations with close ties to the United States. France is the EU’s second-largest economy and has nuclear weapons.
Now Macron gets a second term for his more global agenda.
Historian Simon Schama tweeted that it “looks like those endlessly repetitive self-feeding newspaper predictions that this would be a nailbiter because France hated Macron so much and Le Pen now so reassuring were all massively mistaken.”
The results of the French election are a victory for the EU, NATO and their U.S. allies, but also a warning that the populism of those like Le Pen is not dead.
Le Pen got a higher vote total than five years ago, noted Benjamin Haddad, the senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council. Estimated voter turnout Sunday was less than 65%, low by French standards.
“There is discontent,” Haddad said. “There is anger. There is anger at the cost of living.”
Macron rallied his candidacy with a strong debate showing last week, he said and seems ready to continue pursuing a “reformist liberal agenda.
“There are things he will have to address,” Haddad said. “He is aware of that.”