A sigh of relief from France’s European and Nato allies was heard after Emmanuel Macron won a convincing victory over his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in the final round of the presidential election on Sunday.
France’s status as a linchpin of the EU and a strong contributor to Nato in its support for Ukraine against Russia has been secured for another five years, as reflected in the plaudits for Macron on Sunday night from the likes of Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz and Ursula von der Leyen, leaders of the US, Germany and the European Commission.
At home in France, however, an electoral victory that might seem a landslide in another country — projections show Macron beating Le Pen by around 58 per cent of the vote to 42 — disguises the reality that the nationalist, Eurosceptic, anti-immigration far right is stronger than at any time since the second world war. French society remains deeply divided.
Macron himself — whose first term was scarred by sometimes violent anti-government gilets jaunes protests triggered by a green fuel tax and rising prices — admitted as much in a muted victory speech in front of the Eiffel Tower.
“Our country is beset by doubts and divisions,” he said after walking to the stage to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU anthem.
Macron said he wanted to respond to the demands of Le Pen’s voters as well as the concerns of those who abstained or voted in the first round for the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. “Today’s vote requires us to consider all the hardships of people’s lives and to respond effectively to them and to the anger expressed.”
For her part, Le Pen conceded defeat in Sunday’s vote but remained bitterly critical of Macron. She vowed to fight on with her Rassemblement National party for the June elections to the National Assembly — which Macron needs to control if he is to govern effectively for the next five years.
She even described her score, the highest in her three attempts at the presidency since 2012, as “a stunning victory” that was evidence of a desire for change and of “great defiance” by the French towards national and European leaders.
With abstention estimated at 28 per cent of registered voters — the highest for a second round of a presidential election in more than 50 years — analysts say the French remain disillusioned with politics and distrustful of their leaders.
The two candidates for the Socialists and Les Républicains, the political movements that provided most of France’s presidents in the postwar years, did so badly in the first round of voting two weeks ago that they failed even to make the 5 per cent threshold above which the state pays almost half of a contender’s campaign costs.
Instead the election showed the relevance of assertions by both Macron and Le Pen that the old confrontation between right and left no longer exists, replaced now by a civilisational clash between nationalists and populists on one side and globalists and liberals on the other.
“It’s a situation for the moment that bears witness to the fragility of French society,” Dominique Reynié, a political scientist at Sciences Po, said on Sunday night. He noted that while Macron had won overall, Le Pen was ahead in some parts of the country as well as among the young and the working class. “Each time it gets bigger,” he said.
The stage is now set for an intense round of negotiations and grandstanding ahead of the legislative elections by the three political currents that have emerged strongest from the presidential vote: the group described by Macron as his “extreme centre”, along with Le Pen’s extreme right and the extreme left of Mélenchon, who came third in the first round and nearly beat Le Pen to qualify for the run-off against Macron.
“Macron’s biggest challenge will be to create a sense of cohesion in an extremely fragmented country,” said Tara Varma of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Le Pen will do her best to capitalise on her result for the June parliamentary elections.”
She is not the only one. Macron has the advantage because his success on Sunday will allow his La République en Marche party to attract potential National Assembly candidates from the defeated ranks of the centre-right, the centre-left and the greens into a kind of grand alliance to win in June.
Victory, however, is not assured. Le Pen may be able to bring into her camp some of those who voted for Eric Zemmour, another far-right candidate obsessed by immigration who has support among wealthier whites. However, bitter rivalry between the two may make it hard to conclude an alliance.
Zemmour called for unity on Sunday, saying victory could not be achieved without “an alliance of all rightwing groups: between working people and the patriotic bourgeoisie, between old and young, between remote corners of France and the big cities, between all those who want to live in a France that is French”.
Leaders of the fractured left are also looking for alliances in the hope of winning seats in the National Assembly. Mélenchon has even declared an ambition to be prime minister, a post from where he could stop Macron pushing through laws of which the left disapproved, while Communist leader Fabien Roussel wants a united left to dominate the assembly to deal with the “grave threat weighing on our democracy”.
At least until the legislative elections two months from now, Macron may have as many headaches trying to reconcile the French to each other as he has had trying to negotiate a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine.
As he told a television interviewer after his victory speech on Sunday: “The task is to reunite.”