The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Macron wins one for democracy, but the far right still looms

Emmanuel Macron, France's president, waves to supporters following the second round of voting in the French presidential election in Paris, France, on Sunday. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg)
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The robust victory of France’s middle-of-the-road President Emmanuel Macron in Sunday’s election is good news for the Western alliance on behalf of Ukraine and bad news for Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Macron’s reelection is also a triumph for the European Union and a setback for those who would weaken it or break it up.

And the defeat of far-right leader Marine Le Pen dealt an important blow to nationalist forces in Europe focused on limiting immigration and marginalizing immigrants, particularly Muslims. It was thus a victory for democracy as well.

The size of Macron’s margin — projected at 59 percent to Le Pen’s 41 percent — was more comfortable than many of his supporters expected even two weeks ago, when Macron and Le Pen advanced to the decisive round.

It reflected Macron’s success in making the dangers of a Le Pen presidency more salient to key voter groups than their frustrations with inflation, their sense that he is out of touch, and a conviction among progressives that while he promised five years ago to be neither right nor left, he governed more from the center-right. To woo the left, Macron softened his stance on economic questions, notably his proposals to raise the eligibility age for social security.

James McAuley: Voters disappointed by Macron still backed him. Now he owes them.

Macron was especially effective in tying Le Pen to Putin. While Macron’s quest for better relations with Putin brought him criticism from the Russian dictator’s adversaries in the West, Le Pen’s closeness to Putin (and her party’s financial ties to a Russian bank) gave the incumbent a fat target, which he hit squarely during their debate last week. Macron’s insistence that Le Pen’s proposals were racist, divisive or unworkable did the rest.

But Sunday’s good news carried qualifiers and caveats, and Macron used his victory speech to acknowledge the “anger” in a country full of “doubt and division” and pledged to fight for a “more just” nation in which “no one will be left by the wayside.”

Despite the size of Macron’s projected victory, it fell short of his 66- to 34-percent defeat of Le Pen in 2017. Le Pen’s efforts to transform herself from a dangerous far-right zealot to a friend of the French working class bore fruit. Exit polls showed her especially strong among working-class voters. The fact that so many are now willing to support a candidate of the ultraright suggested how economic distress bred by anger over social and economic change has eroded what the French call the “Republican Front” — the alliance in support of a tolerant, democratic republic.

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Marine Le Pen’s projected vote is more than double the 17.8 percent that her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the predecessor party to his daughter’s, won in the 2002 runoff against then-president Jacques Chirac.

Signs of anger at Macron on the left included relatively low turnout in areas won by leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who ran just behind Le Pen in the first round of voting two weeks ago. Faced with a choice between a challenger they saw as a fascist and an incumbent they regarded as a friend of big business and the wealthy, polls found that four Mélenchon voters in 10 either abstained or cast blank ballots.

The Post's View: Macron’s win is cause for great relief — and modest celebration

In Seine-Saint-Denis, a working-class region outside of Paris with a substantial Muslim population, Mélenchon won overwhelmingly in the first round. As of 5 p.m. Sunday, according to the Europe Elects Twitter feed, Seine-Saint-Denis’s turnout was the lowest in the nation at 45 percent.

This points to the major challenge Macron faces in French legislative elections that will be held in two rounds on June 12 and June 19. Many lukewarm Macron voters might express their discontent by opposing National Assembly candidates of the president’s party. The political leaning of the French prime minister, who enjoys considerable power, is determined by who controls the Assembly.

If Macron’s Republic on the Move party loses its majority, Macron could be faced with a fractured and unruly parliament, the need for elaborate negotiations and possibly, although it’s a long shot, a prime minister hostile to his program.

Even before Sunday’s vote, Mélenchon began campaigning for the prime minister’s job, urging voters to support his radical left party as a check on whoever won the presidency. The legislative elections will also be a test of whether the parties accustomed to governing France before Macron’s 2017 breakthrough — the center-right Republicans and the center-left Socialists — can stage a comeback after being crushed in the first presidential round.

None of this, however, should detract from Macron’s extraordinary achievement. A loner who broke with the major parties and, from scratch, built a novel coalition of the center managed to win a decisive reelection in a time of deep discontent and uncertainty. He prevailed in a nation that has not looked kindly on incumbents for decades.

And through his victory, he saved Europe from political catastrophe.