President Emmanuel Macron won re-election with 58.5 percent of the vote on Sunday, holding back far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, but in a France even more divided than when he defeated her the first time five years ago.
An audible ouf! of relief went out in France and abroad from supporters who saw the contest as a closer-than-ever showdown here between a tired rules-based democracy and a growing authoritarian populism.
Resentful citizens, including many leaning to the far-left, now look to June’s parliamentary election to elect a mix of parties that could make it even harder for Macron to govern the country.
The president’s reelection, with a score higher than last-minute polls had predicted, confirmed Macron as the leading figure in the European Union, a point he stressed by having the EU’s “Ode to Joy” anthem played as he arrived at his victory rally.
Even as the crowds massed at the Eiffel Tower cheered, the smiling but sober Macron acknowledged the problem.
“I know that for many of our compatriots, who today chose the far-right, the anger and disagreements that led them to vote for this project, must also find an answer,” he said. “It will be my responsibility and that of those around me.”
Unlike 2017, when his new party easily won an absolute majority in the National Assembly, he now faces a reduced number of deputies surrounded on both sides by a strengthened opposition. His deputies may have to build an uncomfortable coalition with smaller parties.
Predicting problems ahead, political scientist Dominique Reynié compared Macron to a surfer. “He can ride the wave, but he can’t make the wave,” he told Radio Classique.
Le Pen won 41.5 per cent of the vote, a jump from the 33.9 per cent she scored in 2017. Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen scored only 17.8 per cent when he was the first far-right candidate to reach the presidential run-off in 2002.
Her friendlier approach this time has made her once-angry views – for nationalism, populism and a pro-Moscow foreign policy, against immigration, the EU and NATO – into more acceptable policies.
That headline score highlighted only the votes cast. The daily Le Monde published more detailed pie charts (called camemberts in French) showing Macron’s total shrunk to 54.7 per cent when blank votes were added.
When the camembert included all registered voters, the presidential result was 38.5 per cent to 27.3 pe rcent, with 28 per cent abstention and 6.2 per cent blank or spoiled ballots.
Although hard to put a number on, the percentage of voters backing Macron to block Le Pen or who hated Macron so much they chose Le Pen or abstained was substantial.
Reynié said a record 60 per cent of eligible voters chose Le Pen, abstention or blank voting. This “electoral protesting … is sapping the foundations of our Fifth Republic and the presidential election”.
He told Le Monde that elections have become “an instrument of protest against power more than of delegation of power”.
As in the first round, the ephemeral “Catholic vote” was drowned out by the lack of explicitly Catholic candidates and campaigns that highlighted economic issues and personal barbs such as “president of the rich” for Macron or “racist” and “pro-Putin” for Le Pen.
With the populist Le Pen getting slowly closer to possible victory, the Catholic bishops were criticised for not clearly emphasising the moral issues presented by a candidate so opposed to many Gospel values.
Several lay Catholic associations openly appealed for a vote against Le Pen, as did the leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities. The Protestant churches urged voters to reject the policies of her National Rally party.