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PARIS — Emmanuel Macron was reelected as president of France on Sunday but a powerful showing by his far-right rival Marine Le Pen — her strongest ever — spells trouble for his second term and sends a warning shot to NATO and the European Union.
The centrist incumbent swept to victory by a comfortable margin, with some 58.5 percent of the electorate backing him versus 41.5 percent for Le Pen, according to a preliminary tally. That gives Macron a second five-year term.
But the president’s victory is clouded by the fact that his rival — an anti-immigration, nationalist candidate who advocates banning the Islamic headscarf in public, has courted Russian President Vladimir Putin and wants to turn the European Union into an “alliance of European nations” — won more votes than any far-right candidate in the history of the French Republic.
More than 12 million people chose Le Pen, about five million more than during her last presidential bid in 2017 — an increase that suggests that her strategy of trying to bring her party into the political mainstream has been largely successful.
The result also carries warnings for the EU and NATO.
In the midst of Russia’s war on Ukraine, with footage of bombed-out cities featured daily on TV news, a huge chunk of the French electorate backed a candidate who has called for forming an alliance with Moscow and said she would pull France out of NATO’s integrated command if elected.
In one of the EU’s founding countries, millions voted for a candidate whose campaign platform advocates dismantling the EU from within by suspending its free-travel rules and downgrading the supremacy of EU law.
“This result is [the sign] of a great mistrust against our leaders and against European leaders, a message they cannot ignore,” Le Pen told supporters in her concession speech. “Voters have shown they want a strong opposition power to Macron.”
Her strong showing will be seen as a warning in Brussels, which is still rattled by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and is locked in judicial battles with Poland and Hungary over rule-of-law disputes.
But the most immediate challenge will be for Macron, who embarks on his second term in a deeply divided country where political anger could easily boil over into street protests and violence.
The president acknowledged those divisions in his victory speech.
“Our country is full of doubts and divisions, so we will need to be strong. But nobody will be left by the wayside,” he said from an octagon-shaped stage set in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Rest around the corner
While the vote means continuity will prevail in France, it also shows that divisions that have plagued French politics for decades are not shrinking, but getting larger with every successive election.
Le Pen is on her third presidential campaign but she has not ruled out another and is by no means finished politically. She has recovered from her defeat in 2017 and significantly expanded her party’s base. In her concession speech, the National Rally party chief struck a combative tone and hinted that she would be leading her troops into battle when voters elect a new French parliament in June.
“It’s a striking victory,” Le Pen told cheering supporters in Boulogne, a suburb of Paris that has historically been her party’s home base.
Hinting at potential alliances that could strengthen Le Pen’s party even further, far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who was knocked out in the election’s first round, called for the formation of a “patriotic bloc” uniting his and Le Pen’s supporters.
“We must forget our quarrels and unite our forces. It is possible, it is essential, it is our duty. Let’s build the first coalition of the right and the patriots as soon as possible,” Zemmour said after the election results were announced.
Macron crippled the mainstream center-left and center-right forces during his rise to power and Sunday’s vote showed that the once-powerful Socialist and Les Républicains parties are beyond saving. Neither party was able to gather more than five percent of votes in the first round, meaning that they will not be eligible to have their campaign expenses reimbursed by the state.
Their collapse accelerates the reformatting of France’s political landscape, away from a right-left divide, toward a split between nationalist anti-establishment populists and centrist pro-European progressives.
Embarking on his second term fresh from two years of COVID policies, amid high inflation and the war in Ukraine, Macron is unlikely to enjoy any sort of honeymoon period. Calls have already gone up to kickstart what’s known in France as a “social third round” of the presidential election — one that takes place in the streets, in the form of protests. Left-wing voters who held their noses and voted for Macron to keep the far right out of power are particularly motivated to apply pressure to Macron’s administration.
“It’s going to be a rocky ride,” a top official at Macron’s La République en Marche party told POLITICO ahead of Sunday’s vote.
“I don’t think there’ll be a big wide-ranging protest movement, but I do think we see a range of protests in different parts of the country, some like the Yellow Jacket [grassroots protest movement].”
Protests have already kicked off in French universities, with activists angry about having to choose between the far right and a pro-business candidate. Some leaders of the Yellow Jacket movement, which rocked France in 2018 and 2019, are already calling on citizens to take to the streets.
Discontent has also spread among leftwing voters, whose candidates were all knocked out of the first round of voting on April 10. Twenty-two percent of the electorate voted for far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round and were particularly divided over options in the second.
The France Unbowed party leader emerged as a champion of the left-leaning anti-Macron crowd, scoring highly in suburbs with a large immigrant population and with youth across the country, thanks in part to his green agenda.
As Macron enters his second term, there will be plenty of opportunities for protest. The president was elected on a platform of reforming state pensions and pushing back the retirement age from 62 to 64 or 65 years old. He also wants to reform and introduce more autonomy in French schools, an ambition that will put him on a collision course with France’s powerful teachers’ unions.
Macron’s first mandate was hardly easy, marred by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Yellow Jacket protests that began over a green fuel tax. This time around, he vows that he has learned from mistakes, and promises a new method aimed at building consensus to push through reforms.
But with inflation and energy prices going up, many observers believe the country is being primed for a backlash.
The third round
In the short term, Macron’s opponents are already readying for battle ahead of the parliamentary election in June. The president needs a majority in the National Assembly to be able to push through his reforms and campaigning is not expected to be easy.
Traditionally, French voters tend to vote the same way in presidential and parliamentary elections, so that the elected president and his government aren’t at loggerheads as they begin their term.
But for France’s left, the parliamentary election offers an opportunity for revenge. Mélenchon came a close third in the first round of the presidential election and his camp hopes to capitalize on his success and Thwart Macron’s reform plans.
Much attention will also be on Le Pen’s National Rally, which will face competition or cooperation in the parliamentary election with Zemmour, who garnered 7 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.
The hard right usually fares badly in parliamentary elections as mainstream parties tend to unite to block them out of office. In 2017, the National Rally only got eight seats out of 577, though Le Pen got 33 percent of the vote in the presidential election that year.
Le Pen pitched herself as the spokesperson for the downtrodden, the forgotten French against the urban elites. The French president has vowed to unite the country, but questions about how those voices are heard have never been more acute.
This article has been updated.