On Sunday 24th April, Emmanuel Macron beat his far-right rival Marine Le Pen by 58.5% to 41.5%, to become the first sitting French president to be reelected since 2002. While the gap between both candidates is narrower than it was 5 years ago (a 16-point victory in 2022, half the 32-point win he had in 2017), Emmanuel Macron’s victory is bigger than any pre-election poll foresaw, and it is big enough to give him momentum into the general elections in June. Marine Le Pen, who campaigned on a nationalist, anti-immigration, Eurosceptic and anti-NATO agenda, was soundly defeated. When one considers France’s longstanding relationship with government – cheer them in, then chuck them out at the first opportunity – this is no mean feat.
Having said this, yesterday’s results also highlight some of the profound divisions facing French society and the acute challenges the returned president will have to deal with on day one of his second presidency. If Macron’s victory is indisputable, it is a far cry from his 2017 win, where he defeated Le Pen comfortably with 66% of the vote.
While quickly conceding on Sunday night, Marine Le Pen portrayed her 42% score as a triumph of its own, highlighting the high watermark reached by her party (the best results by any far-right candidate in the history of the Fifth Republic) and already positioning herself as Macron’s opposition leader ahead of the next general elections. She has managed to ‘normalise’ her National Rally and make it quasi mainstream, installing it over the long term in the French political landscape. The results of the upcoming parliamentary ballot – to be held on 12th and 19th June – will decide the composition of the French lower house and hence the political colour of the next French government, the French president having to appoint the leader of the largest party in the National Assembly to form a government.
While the claim made on Sunday evening by far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélanchon that Emmanuel Macron was the least well-elected president of the Fifth Republic was a little farfetched, some numbers need to be carefully looked at. With 18.7 million votes, Macron won about 2 million ballots fewer than he did in 2017, while Le Pen progressed by 2.6 million votes. If one adds blank ballots and abstainers (at 28.2%, the second highest level since 1969 for a presidential election), 17 million French people felt disenfranchised enough or unrepresented to decide to either not vote or cast a ballot for neither candidate.
Macron, who dynamited France’s traditional right-left political landscape in 2017 and oversaw the shipwreck of both the Conservative and Socialist parties who cumulated less than 7% of the votes on the first round of this year’s presidential election, now must manage the aftermath of his victory: a country divided into three large blocs – a far-rightist one, a centrist-progressive one and a far-left one. The collapse of these traditional parties finishes the reformatting of France’s political landscape towards a split between nationalist anti-establishment populists and centrist pro-European progressives.
As a nod to left-wing voters who supported him in droves in the second round and help secure his reelection, Macron is likely to appoint a woman from the centre-left as care-taker prime minister from early May until after the second round of the upcoming general elections. Look for Elisabeth Borne, the current transport minister who successfully led the reform of the notoriously unionised French railways or Florence Parly, Macron’s defence minister, as potential candidates for both caretaker and full premier, should Macron win the next electoral contest.
The June parliamentary elections will be both critical for his ability to govern, to implement his pro-European and pro-business agenda, and to pursue the profound reforms of French society he initiated five years ago. They may make it also more difficult to achieve. Macron is unlikely to obtain an absolute majority as he did in 2017. Who he will be able to or decide to ally himself with and what impact this will have on his agenda is unclear at this stage. Starting his second term on 13th May after two years of COVID, amid high inflation and the war in Ukraine, Macron will not enjoy any sort of honeymoon period. Calls have already gone up, from the far left to Le Pen’s supporters, to kickstart what’s known in France as a “social third round”— taking to the streets to protest and impose a different political and social agenda.
And there will be plenty of opportunities for protest as the reelected President takes to implementing his campaign platform of reforming state pensions and pushing back the retirement age from 62 to 64 or 65 years old, in addition to introducing more autonomy in French universities and schools (an ambition that will put him on a collision course with France’s powerful teachers’ unions). Meanwhile, rising inflation and high energy prices are priming the country for a summer of discontent.
Internationally, Le Pen’s strong showing will have an impact on Macron’s European agenda. While he has been outspoken about his commitment to Europe and his desire for the EU to become stronger and more united in terms of its security and foreign policy, after having campaigned on dismantling the EU from within by suspending its free-travel rules and downgrading the supremacy of EU law, Le Pen’s results will be seen as a warning in Brussels. This is a challenge that won’t go unheard in a European Union still rattled by Britain’s decision to leave it, and as Brussels faces upcoming judicial battles with Poland and Hungary over rule-of-law disputes.
Juxtaposed with a new, weak and domestically embattled German Chancellor, Macron’s successful reelection leaves him with an open field on the European stage. The French Presidency of the EU will carry on until the end of June, followed by the succession of the Czech Republic. France’s intense and productive six-month EU presidency, Macron’s reelection on a clear European agenda that he will choose to read as a mandate, the lack of European challenger post-Merkel as EU-leader and a “small State EU presidency” to follow France’s all contribute to positioning the reelected French President as indispensable and unavoidable on all things European. One can expect to see a Macron II more focused on Europe but also doubling down on what he calls a “Europe that protects”, calling for a revision of free movement in the Schengen area, a more assertive Europe in terms of economic sovereignty and independence, and a more protective Europe on trade; which makes the signing on deals currently under discussion all the more difficult.
In Macron’s eyes, the war in Ukraine has proved France’s NATO credentials with the country (discreetly) being one of the main purveyors of defensive and offensive weaponry to Kyiv, as well as intelligence/imagery. It has also shown that if the Europeans do not decide to do more in the defence realm for their own protection, they will forever be dependent on an America that is today focused on China and led by a Europe-friendly Administration — something that could change in 2024 and leave Europeans in the cold if they don’t decide to do more for themselves and by themselves. In this respect, the reset of French-UK relations called for by British premier Johnson while preparing a bill to override the Northern Ireland protocol is unlikely to produce a positive outcome in the near term.