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Macron may have won, but divisions are getting worse

More than 12 million people voted for Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s election, about five million more than in her previous presidential bid in 2017

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Sun 1 May 2022, 11:30 PM

Was that the wind on Monday morning or an enormous sigh of relief from the European establishment as the result of France’s presidential election became widely known?

If it was a breeze that blew through, it coincided with Emmanuel Macron’s victory as the first incumbent to be re-elected president of France since 2002.

Like five years ago he defeated his scrappy opponent Marine Le Pen, though it was not a resounding victory. Macron might have emerged the winner, but Le Pen registered the best result by a far-right candidate in the history of the French Republic.

Polls and interviews showed many voters didn’t particularly warm up to either candidate, an insight demonstrated by a voter abstention rate of 28 percent, the highest in any second-round runoff vote in France since Georges Pompidou won in 1969.

The notion that Le Pen, a nationalist and Eurosceptic, could possibly attract a majority in the French vote had Europe on edge. As the second-largest economy in the European Union and a founding member, France is a pillar of the bloc.

In the end Macron remained in power by a comfortable margin as 58 percent of the electorate backed him for a second five-year term.

But his victory is clouded by a result that reveals a deeply divided France. Le Pen, heir to a right-wing ideology and political party founded by her father, is vocally anti-immigration and wants to turn the EU into an alliance instead of a union by blunting its current free-travel rules and bloc-wide laws.

A measure of how far she has come can be gauged by her father’s presidential bid 20 years ago. As Jacques Chirac was re-elected – the most recent incumbent victory before Macron – patriarch Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to garner just 15 percent of the vote, a proportion his daughter Marine nearly tripled.

More than 12 million people voted for Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s election, about five million more than in her previous presidential bid in 2017.

“The result shows a great mistrust against our leaders and against European leaders, a message they cannot ignore,” Le Pen said in her concession speech. “Voters have shown they want a strong opposition power to Macron.”

Her robust showing will be seen as a warning to an EU still rattled by Brexit, but Macron himself faces the most immediate challenge in a country where political anger easily boils over into street protests.

The youthful president acknowledged as much as he spoke from a stage in front of the Eiffel Tower. “Our country is full of doubts and divisions, so we will need to be strong,” he said. “But no one will be left by the wayside.”

Ironically, although he became the youngest president in French history when first elected, Macron’s strongest support in the latest election came from those aged over 70, who turned out to vote in by far the largest numbers and supported him by a 71 percent margin, according to the Ipsos France polling company.

Le Pen’s most solid support came from a generation alarmed by Macron’s plans to extend the retirement age. Those in their 50s voted for the challenger by a 51 per cent plurality. Some 41 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 did not vote at all.

Mathieu Gallard, research director of Ipsos France, said there was not a clear urban-rural divide in the vote result that some had predicted “The biggest divides are above all generational and social. A look at detailed commune-by-commune map shows the rural-urban split really does not correspond to reality.”

While the vote means continuity, it indicates divisions in France are getting larger with every successive election. The Ipsos data shows professionals, senior management, teachers and pensioners voted for Macron while a majority of blue-collar workers chose Le Pen. Almost 75 per cent of voters with a degree or other higher education qualification voted for Macron while more than 60 per cent of those without a bachelor’s degree or high school diploma chose Le Pen.

Accused of being arrogant and the president of the rich, Macron will need to modify his behavior in an attempt to appeal to the disenchanted, especially in a time of global and regional crises.

And it’s not just about policies. France’s two-round electoral system itself leaves large parts of the population feeling under-represented. To make it into the second and final ballot, candidates for parliament must attract at least 12.5 per cent of the vote in the first round, a bar that many consider too high. In the last parliament, although Le Pen was the second-most popular presidential candidate in the previous election, her party had just eight of the national assembly’s 577 seats.

With some segments of society feeling wildly underrepresented, it could be the recipe for more unrest similar to the Gilet Jaunes, or Yellow Vest, movement of street demonstrations and riots of recent years.

Discontent is already spreading among left-wing voters whose candidates were all eliminated in the first round of voting on April 10. Some 22 per cent of the electorate voted for far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of voting.

Whatever his ability to reach out to various segments of French society, Macron has his work cut out for him at home and abroad. As the loudest advocate of an ever-more integrated European Union, he faces a couple of severe international crises – a global pandemic and open conflict in Ukraine. The EU is also struggling with soaring energy prices, supply chain failures and inflation.

It’s not likely Macron will have much of a honeymoon period before rolling up his sleeves and getting to work on some harsh realities.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy.

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