France’s second-round presidential election on Sunday, a contest between incumbent center-right Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, ended with a clear Macron victory — but not the overwhelming victory he had in their 2017 matchup.
In the first round of the elections on April 10, Macron and Le Pen emerged as the frontrunners after a tumultuous campaign, which saw polling numbers careening wildly in the weeks before the election. Macron bested Le Pen by less than 5 percentage points in the first round this time; in their first matchup in 2017 that gap was even smaller, but Le Pen also received a smaller percentage of the total. Macron ultimately won the final vote in 2017, with about 66.1 percent to Le Pen’s 33.9 percent. Voters who had selected Socialist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the 2017 elections mostly gathered around Macron, though they may not have followed suit this go-round despite Mélenchon’s pleas after the first round that his supporters “not give a single vote to Madame Le Pen.”
While the French public has typically abided by the unspoken rule of the cordon sanitaire — essentially, the idea that voters will prevent a far-right politician from presiding over the Fifth Republic — a combination of low turnout, voter apathy, and a lack of viable alternatives to Macron on the left threatened to put Le Pen in power, or at least very close.
Le Pen did indeed come even closer than she did last time, perhaps showing that despite her noxious ideas, her economic messages are resonating with voters who are struggling with rising prices due to global inflation and the war in Ukraine. The French Left failed this round to put up a candidate who could speak to citizens’ economic concerns without Le Pen’s hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant, and isolationist worldview — and likely suffered for it. Le Pen may have won a greater proportion of voters who previously chose candidates on the left, or who previously voted for Macron himself, because of an overall apathy toward the incumbent.
A Le Pen victory would have changed France and Europe
Le Pen softened her far-right rhetoric during this election cycle to focus on economic issues and presented herself as the candidate for people struggling to pay their bills as inflation and fuel costs creep up. Her shifting focus, however, does not negate the fact that she has long espoused views that, if not fascist, come alarmingly close.
In a televised debate on April 20, Macron tore into Le Pen about her proposal to ban the hijab, a head covering some Muslim women in France wear in public, saying that the proposed ban would lead to “civil war.” France’s Muslim population is the largest in Western Europe, and it has already faced serious discrimination from the government: Former President Nicholas Sarkozy proposed a bill in 2010 that would ban all face coverings — particularly burqa and similar coverings — in public.
France cherishes its particular vision of itself as a secular state; its 1958 Constitution states that “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic, guaranteeing that all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion are treated as equals before the law and respecting all religious beliefs.” However, building on the 2004 ban on religious clothing in schools, Sarkozy twisted the concept of secularism to suit his own right-wing worldview and advocate for the ban. But secularism doesn’t mean restricting people from practicing or adhering to their religion in a public way — rather, secularism as it’s defined in the French Constitution indicates that the state doesn’t favor or identify with any religion and people are free to follow their traditions and beliefs as they wish.
With Le Pen, the proposed hijab ban would be in line with other discriminatory and anti-immigrant policy ideas, like only providing welfare benefits to French nationals and giving them preferential treatment in social housing and jobs programs; deporting undocumented immigrants; stopping reunification programs for immigrant families; and withdrawing residency permits for immigrants if they aren’t employed for longer than a year.
A Le Pen victory would have dramatically shifted the balance of European and NATO power, which would be especially precarious as NATO support and European solidarity have proven critical for Ukraine as the country’s military tries to keep Russia from essentially taking over. Le Pen promised to withdraw French troops from NATO integrated military command if she won the presidency, which at the very least would symbolically weaken the NATO alliance — particularly after five years of Macron’s efforts to secure France’s position in European and international alliances. While she didn’t call for a full withdrawal as far-left candidate Mélenchon did, her positions on NATO and the EU would certainly destabilize both those alliances.
In terms of the EU, Le Pen called for increased French independence from the bloc, including recognizing the primacy of French law over EU law — a move which, when attempted by Poland last year, resulted in legal action by the European Commission.
Furthermore, Le Pen’s call for a NATO rapprochement with Russia after an end to the Ukraine war at a news conference on Wednesday was at very best poorly timed, and at worst could be perceived as continuing her support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. While she has condemned the invasion, she supported the initial Russian incursion into Crimea in 2014, and her party, the National Rally, borrowed millions from the First Czech-Russian Bank. The bank ultimately collapsed in 2016 and was acquired by Aviazapchast, a private Russian company with historical ties to the Russian government. Her party has not yet repaid the loan, making them indebted to Russia, putting Le Pen in uncomfortably close proximity to the Kremlin.
What comes next?
Macron’s victory, while clear, isn’t quite the thumping that his supporters produced in 2017. With just about 66 percent of the public turning out to vote — a low figure in French elections — the political apathy and distaste for Macron is still clear. And again, Le Pen came much closer than last time to the French presidency, indicating that although France’s political promise to keep a far-right nationalist out of the highest office has held, Macron’s victory is far from a sweeping rebuke to the far-right in Europe.
It’s also a clear indicator of the inability of the traditional political parties, the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains, to carve out a clear role for themselves in the current political landscape, placing their future in question.
The low turnout, in particular, reflects a sense among French voters that, “their national political system doesn’t work,” as Susi Dennison, the director of the European power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Vox in an interview before the first round of elections.
“You can kind of see that there’s this idea that there’s literally no point voting, it doesn’t change anything,” Dennison told Vox. “The deal that you pay your taxes, you go out and vote, you sort of play the game, is no longer applicable in France.” Macron’s victory, though a relief to many watching from outside France, was likely carried by people who felt like they had no other option and that there’s no one speaking to their needs, but also that they ultimately couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Le Pen.
“There’s a lot of worry about perceived increases in inequality under Macron, under Macron’s mandate, a kind of a sense that some of the big, staple public services around health and education are increasingly pushed more in a privatized direction,” Dennison said. “So, I think it’s these very domestic political issues that are preoccupying the debate — almost more than the security context and so on.”
“Normally, with the National Assembly elections coming shortly after the presidential elections, you tend to find that it goes the same way,” Dennison continued. “But I wonder if, this time around, this sense of frustration may be different, that if Macron, as expected, wins the election but people feel they haven’t had a chance to express their actual views in the current context, that they’ve been forced to vote for Macron for want of an alternative, then, I wonder if they may use the [National Assembly] elections as a chance to vote more with their convictions,” she said.
“Which might make for a more interesting situation with regard to the National Assembly but, with the way the Fifth Republic works, may make it more difficult for him to drive through a clear agenda in his second mandate as president, not having the sort of support that he’s had in the first mandate.” The shape of Macron’s second mandate could become clearer during the National Assembly elections, which are scheduled to take place on June 12 and June 19.