French President Emmanuel Macron and the forces of liberal democracy won a reprieve in the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday.
Despite the worries of Macron’s supporters that he would barely take the top spot, he won 27.4 per cent with nearly all the votes counted, well ahead of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who secured 24 per cent in her third presidential contest. Macron’s relatively strong showing increased the likelihood that he will prevail when the two face off in the second round April 24.
In a sign of the discontent Macron’s pro-business policies have unleashed in significant parts of the French electorate, the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was running close to Le Pen with 21.6 per cent.
Mélenchon’s strength puts Macron in a position of having to implore leftist voters who don’t much like the president to support him rather than abstain in the second round or cast protest votes for Le Pen. Mélenchon gave Macron some help in his concession speech, saying, “You should not vote for Madame Le Pen.”
Sunday’s outcome was a relief for Macron, an eloquent defender of liberal democratic values. A critic of a narrow and authoritarian nationalism, he drifted to the right on immigration in the face of the right-wing challenge.
Most Western leaders — centre-left and centre-right — will be rooting hard for Macron for fear that Le Pen will threaten the European Union and unified Western support for Ukraine.
Macron has combined tax cuts and pro-business policies with substantial new education programs, including universal preschool from age 3 and aggressive job-training efforts. Macron was no fiscal scold. During the pandemic, he spent freely with a “whatever it takes” attitude toward protecting jobs.
But as much as Macron spoke of the imperative of lifting up France’s economically marginalised regions, he never shook the image he created early on that he was “president of the rich” and failed to understand the country outside Paris. His distant demeanour and investment banker background didn’t help. It fell to Le Pen to poach the left’s rhetoric and to cast herself as the candidate of the economically insecure.
There was an ironic aspect to Macron’s election slogan, “Nous tous,” meaning “all of us.” It painted a happy image of a united France even as the election itself showed a nation deeply torn.
Beyond left and right
The paradox of Macron’s project to advance a politics “beyond left and right” is that in an institutional sense, he has helped weaken the broader middle.
At a national level, the centre-left Socialists and centre-right Republicans are close to dead. On Sunday, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the candidate of the once powerful Socialist Party, was winning just 2 per cent of the vote. Valérie Pécresse, the standard-bearer for the Republicans, the centre-right party that can trace its lineage to Gen. Charles de Gaulle, took just 5 per cent.
Le Pen’s durability was a tribute to her skill at remaking her image without changing her underlying right-wing program. In what might be a warning to Democrats in the United States, she played down her trademark issues of immigration and fear of Muslims and focused on the cost of living. Macron acknowledged the power of the issue in his victory speech by saying only his approach would move prices down.
She also benefited from the presence of a candidate who once threatened to doom her by splitting the far-right vote. Éric Zemmour, a talk-show host and author, was even more extreme in his anti-immigrant rhetoric than Le Pen.
But Le Pen used Zemmour to help remake herself as a more moderate, “presidential” candidate. Both of them had embraced Putin, but Le Pen backed off her pro-Putin position somewhat, calling on France to accept Ukrainian refugees while Zemmour called for rejecting them.
By allowing Macron to cast himself as a global statesman, the Ukraine conflict was initially a boon to the president. But Macron used it to stay off the campaign trail, which offended many voters and fed his image for imperiousness, and his poll numbers fell.
His temporary setback, however, may in the end have pushed moderate voters his way as the danger of a Le Pen presidency grew. The poor showing of Pécresse, Hidalgo and environmentalist candidate Yannick Jadot seemed to reflect this move to Macron. He thanked the defeated candidates who came out against Le Pen for “their level-headedness about the far right.”
The good news Sunday is that the total for the two extreme right candidates was lower than seemed likely only a few months ago. But the burden on Macron is enormous. He must fend off a far right that threatens not only his own nation, but liberal democrats everywhere.
E.J. Dionne is a professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is “Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country.”