Emmanuel Macron’s Sunday night election victory was summed up by French newspaper headlines. “A New Start,” said the pro-Macron economic daily Les Échos. “Thanks to whom?” asked Libération, reminding Macron of his debt to its left-wing readers, who voted reluctantly for a man they felt had betrayed them. “Great victory, great challenges,” said the conservative Le Figaro.
Macron's first term seemed like an interminable crisis. The Benalla scandal. The yellow vests revolt. Transport strikes over pension reform. The fire at Notre Dame. The beheading of teacher Samuel Paty. The Covid-19 pandemic. The war in Ukraine. Many French find Macron's know-it-all air unbearable, but they also recognise him as a good crisis manager.
It is not going to get any easier. The war in Ukraine, the pandemic and global warming continue, with concomitant economic perils. In France, the street always threatens. In his first term, effigies of Macron were hanged. Brigitte Macron's pained expression at the victory celebration beneath the Eiffel Tower seemed to ask: "Five more years of hell?"
On the face of it, Macron's final score of 58.54 per cent was a great victory. But the fact that 13.3 million citizens voted for the extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen – 41.46 per cent of votes cast – was a source of alarm. Even more – 16.7 million registered voters – abstained or cast blank or spoiled ballots. Macron has clearly failed to fulfil his 2017 campaign promise to "re-enchant politics".
By the eve of the first round on April 10th, Le Pen was polling only 1 or 2 percentage points behind Macron. Over the last two weeks, the mask of a gentle, caring maternal figure which Le Pen had so carefully cultivated fell off.
Macron zeroed in on Le Pen's ties with Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban, the impossibility of financing the gifts she promised voters, her unconstitutional plan for a referendum to stop immigration and discriminate against foreigners, and her crusade against the Muslim headscarf.
Thus challenged, the new Le Pen turned out to be as unpleasant as the old one. "Having no more arguments, they decided to return to the fundamentals of the Front National [the former name of the Rassemblement National], that is to say aggressiveness," Macron observed on April 22nd.
Le Pen and her far-left counterpart, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (the France Unbowed) party, vowed on Sunday night to lead their troops into what Le Pen called "the great electoral battle of the legislative elections" seven weeks from now. Both came across as surly and vindictive, while Macron spoke of "benevolence".
Macron will enjoy no post-election honeymoon with voters. The legislative battle takes place amid a complete reconfiguration of French politics. The national assembly – and the prime minister’s job – are up for grabs in June. They will go to whichever of three blocs achieves the ever-elusive goal of unity.
Macron's party, La République en Marche, may be regarded as an empty vessel which has failed to develop a grassroots presence or as a potential magnet for the decimated Les Républicains and Socialist parties. The former LR president Nicolas Sarkozy endorsed Macron instead of his own party's candidate. Macron's finance minister Bruno Le Maire, a former Les Républicains politician, said on Monday that there was no longer any reason why they should not merge with Macron's party.
The odds of Macron uniting the centre are probably better than those of Le Pen or Mélenchon uniting the extremes. Mélenchon hopes to achieve a "popular union" with the Green party EELV and the Communists by the end of this week. But the Socialists want nothing to do with it, and the others bridle at Mélenchon's my-way-or-the-highway approach.
The former far-right-wing candidate Éric Zemmour has called for a “national bloc” to unite the far-right in the legislative elections, but he has so far been shunned by Le Pen. Zemmour got his digs in on Sunday night, noting that “this is the eighth time that defeat has struck the name of Le Pen”.
Jean-Marie Le Pen fought five unsuccessful presidential elections. His daughter Marine has lost three. But the party’s score has risen from 18 per cent in 2002 to 41.5 per cent in this election. Macron defeated Le Pen by 10 million votes in 2017 and by only 5.5 million votes on Sunday night. One cannot help wondering if the election of an extreme right-wing president is somehow inevitable.
Macron says he will be the president of all the French, that he will bring trains, schools, doctors and public services back to the isolated rural zones which voted en masse for Le Pen. “No one will be left by the side of the road,” he said in his victory speech. Can this warmer, socially minded Macron last? Or will liberal economic reforms rekindle the hatred of the French lower classes?
During their April 20th television debate, Macron remarked that he and Le Pen argued less vehemently than five years ago. “We’re getting old,” Le Pen laughed. In a sense, the two appear fated to grow old together, as president and opponent-in-chief. Le Pen had promised not to stand a fourth time for the presidency. Then she said “I will not abandon you” on Sunday night. Term limits will prevent Macron standing again. His place in French history may depend on his ability to prevent Le Pen or another far-right candidate from becoming his successor.