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Opinion Macron’s win is cause for great relief — and modest celebration

French President Emmanuel Macron waves as he arrives to deliver a victory speech in Paris after being reelected April 24. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
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The United States, Europe and France itself can breathe easier: Despite early polls showing that far-right challenger Marine Le Pen was in striking distance of beating him, Emmanuel Macron won Sunday’s French presidential election runoff by a projected 59- to 41-percent margin. Mr. Macron becomes France’s first incumbent president to win reelection since Jacques Chirac in 2002.

The 44-year-old Mr. Macron can justly view his victory as partly a reward for a record that is, on the whole, much better than his many critics acknowledge. In particular, his efforts to restart the engines of French economic growth have paid off with a 13-year low in unemployment and a boom in new tech start-ups. Mr. Macron has promoted more vigorous French leadership in the European Union.

To an uncomfortable extent, though, Mr. Macron’s majority reflected not voter enthusiasm for him but voter rejection of Ms. Le Pen, a politician burdened by her party’s long-standing anti-immigrant bigotry and, more recently, by her pro-Russian, anti-NATO tilt in foreign policy. At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine makes Ms. Le Pen’s positions more dangerous and repugnant than ever, Mr. Macron’s margin of victory was just about half the one he rolled up against Ms. Le Pen when they met five years ago.

Mr. Macron swept to power the first time because the French were voting “yes” on him as well as “no” on Ms. Le Pen. His can-do persona, and his organization of a new party, En Marche, created a hopeful mainstream alternative to France’s traditional socialists and conservatives uniquely well positioned to tame France’s left- and right-wing populists. In office, Mr. Macron has — perhaps inevitably — paid a price for his insistence on sometimes painful economic reforms, which he saw as needed to promote growth but which many voters saw as favoring France’s wealthy. The president’s assertion of French leadership in European diplomacy, energetic and attention-grabbing as it might be, has so far yielded limited results.

After five years in office, in short, Mr. Macron has not managed definitely to marginalize either left- or right-wing populism. To the contrary, whereas 28 percent of the electorate chose Mr. Macron in the election’s first round April 10, more than 52 percent voted for populists, either Ms. Le Pen or fellow right-winger Éric Zemmour or ultra-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

These politicians feed off the continuing and growing divide between the sectors of France that feel comfortable in the diverse, economically modern, society Mr. Macron offers — and those who feel left out by the man they deride as “president for the rich.” Ms. Le Pen rolled up her largest vote total ever by moderating her style and talking about kitchen-table issues such as the inflation that has struck all of Europe in the wake of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The latter event, of course, makes it more vital than ever that the political center can hold in this key European country. If Mr. Macron draws the right lessons from his country’s populist surge, responds to his critics’ valid concerns and governs accordingly, France’s center can continue to hold and, Americans must hope, expand.