Macron is the first French president to win a second term for two decades Image Credit: AFP

Emmanuel Macron has been reelected as France’s president — and the world can breathe a sigh of relief.

True catastrophe has been averted, which is not at all hyperbolic to say. Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, is the bete noire of European politics: a far-right ideologue who has advocated a “strategic rapprochement” with Vladimir Putin, just as Russia continues its attack on Ukraine.

Thanks to her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, she’s also the heir to a very French tradition of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and unhinged Islamophobia, although she’s recently softened her tone and walked back some of her most outlandish proposals.

I’m of two minds about this election. On the one hand, I feel immense pride in the country that became my adopted home: It’s heartening that France has again rejected the same far right that has permanently disrupted politics in the United States and United Kingdom.

On the other, the French have fended off the far right by re-electing a centrist incumbent whose arrogance and lack of empathy for ordinary people sometimes boggle the mind. If anything, the results show a feeble renewal of a status quo simply because there was no real alternative. This may be as good as it gets.

Second time lucky

As election results came in Sunday, I was compelled to watch the iconic “La Marseillaise” scene from “Casablanca,” when the crowd in Rick’s bar bursts out into the French national anthem to drown out the sounds of Nazi songs.

But it’s difficult to say that this election was the victory of one argument over another, because Macron hardly presented a clear vision to voters and barely even deigned to campaign until the very end. He beat Le Pen 59 to 41 per cent, a decisive win to be sure, but also by a smaller margin than the last time the two faced off five years ago.

It’s true that Macron’s win represents the first time a sitting French president has won reelection in 20 years (the last time was Jacques Chirac in 2002, when he faced off against Jean-Marie Le Pen). Macron has the kind of luck that aspiring politicians would kill for: He has only ever run for office on two occasions, both for president, and he won both times.

But even if the far right was soundly defeated, there is still something deeply unsettling about the final result. For one, Marine Le Pen scored better than she ever has, winning 42 per cent of the vote. The last time she ran, in 2017, she earned only 34 per cent. Her charm offensive seems to have worked, and more voters see her as a credible candidate. That fact is nauseating.

In the middle of the war in Ukraine, perhaps the most significant ground conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, French voters were faced with a member of the family that has always been the centre of the postwar European far right: its Nazi sympathy, its Holocaust denial, its nativism, its authoritarianism. The French did not elect her, but nor did they reject her out of hand.

“The nationalist family is now the main opponent to President Macron,” Le Pen said in her ungracious concession speech. “It is a historic vote for us.” About that, at least, she is sadly correct.

Macron’s allies will bill Sunday’s results as the liberal centre holding off the tide of “populism,” an overly simplistic narrative entirely unsuited to the complexity of this moment.

Groundswell of public support

Another reason the election results are unsettling is that they show little besides apathy, and even indifference, in the face of abyss. Early estimates put the abstention rate at about 28 per cent, a slight increase from its level in 2017. If true, that would be the highest figure for a final round vote since 1969.

That would also mean that Macron was reelected with the support of only about 38 per cent of total registered voters, compared with 43.6 per cent he received in 2017, according to early analysis from Ipsos.

This is not a groundswell of public support behind the centre, which seems more amorphous and hollow than ever.

“He has been reelected to save democracy. Numerous people who voted for him want him to be put under control by the parliament,” said Patrick Weil, a keen observer of the French political scene and a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. “The next parliamentary elections in June will be challenging for him.” They will indeed. Winning a second term is one thing; governing again will be another.

Macron’s message was essentially that it was his way or the highway. Because of Le Pen’s toxicity, voters have thankfully stayed the course. His reelection does not feel like the definitive triumph of “liberal democracy,” but rather the inspiring resilience of decency despite the unfortunate tendency of a “centrist” political establishment to alienate the poorest members of society and the minorities, especially Muslims, who are part of the reason France is a great country.

That so many of these voters clearly backed Macron despite their misgivings is a testament to their commitment to the French Republic, long may it live. Macron owes them a great deal, and he seems to know this. “I want to say that this vote obligates me in the years to come,” he said in his acceptance speech, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Let’s hope he makes good on his promise.

Washington Post

James McAuley is a columnist and an expert in French history