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France’s Macron wins presidency, holding off Le Pen’s far-right threat to upend Europe and relations with Russia

French President Emmanuel Macron stands with his wife Brigitte Macron at a victory rally in Paris on April 24. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

PARIS — Emmanuel Macron became the first French president in two decades to win a second term on Sunday, holding off a far-right challenge by Marine Le Pen that could have upended Europe.

Macron’s decisive victory offers continuity for France and another five years of political stability for the 27-nation European Union, which has been buffeted by years of challenges from far-right populists, Brexit, an immigration crisis, and now Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Le Pen, 53, is an anti-immigrant populist who has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some European leaders had feared that having her in charge of the E.U.’s second-biggest economy and only nuclear power would have instigated an unraveling of Western institutions.

Instead, Macron won 59 percent of the vote and Le Pen 41 percent — as conclusive a result as any in an increasingly fragmented age.

Walking out to the tune of the E.U. anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Macron on Sunday night claimed the election as a win for “an ambitious humanist project.” He also gestured to Le Pen’s supporters.

“I know that the anger and disagreements that led many of our compatriots to opt for the far right, to vote for this project, must also be addressed,” Macron, 44, said as he spoke in front of the Eiffel Tower to a crowd waving French and E.U. flags. “This will be my responsibility.”

Voters in Paris reacted with joy and indifference to French President Emmanuel Macron's reelection victory on April 24. (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

At Le Pen’s election night event, at a Parisian park pavilion, the release of projected results provoked a mix of boos and solemn silence. But the far-right leader remained defiant. She denounced “two weeks of unfair, brutal and violent methods” to prevent her win, and she said that “tonight’s result represents in itself a resounding victory.”

Macron vs. Le Pen 2022: What to know about France’s presidential election runoff

Sunday’s result marked the far right’s best finish in a French presidential election. It was seven percentage points higher than Le Pen’s result in 2017.

She has had some success in moderating her image and bringing her party into the mainstream. Her focus on bread-and-butter issues also resonated with voters.

Still, the result was more decisive than the final polling averages that suggested Macron would win by a margin of 10 to 12 percentage points. The difference may be partly explained by late-deciding voters. Macron’s polling lead had been increasing in the days before the runoff, and France’s ban on publishing new polls after Friday night would have prevented fully capturing that surge.

“The result is very disappointing for [Le Pen],” said Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice. “She ended up very far from power.”

Especially while a war rages in Ukraine that has united European leaders to an unusual degree, a Le Pen win would have sent a shock wave through NATO and imperiled the flow of French weaponry that has quietly flowed to Kyiv.

A Le Pen presidency also would have replaced a fervent E.U. defender with a fierce critic. France and Germany are Europe’s pillars, and policymakers in capitals across the continent had been watching the election with anxiety.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were among the first world leaders to congratulate Macron. “Together, we will move France and Europe forward,” von der Leyen wrote on Twitter.

Europe fears possible Le Pen presidency in France as a threat from within

President Biden, who has worked closely with Macron on Ukraine, tweeted: “France is our oldest ally and a key partner in addressing global challenges. I look forward to our continued close cooperation — including on supporting Ukraine, defending democracy, and countering climate change.”

On the streets of Paris, many on Sunday night appeared relieved that a far-right victory had been averted. “I am extremely happy that Macron won,” said Daniella Delva, 58, who was afraid of the repercussions of a far-right victory on France’s role within Europe. “Taking Europe away like this, it’s not good for France,” she said.

“I want to let [Macron] have one more term to continue what he has put in place,” said Jean-Philippe Dahene, 56, a Macron voter in the far-right stronghold of Hénin-Beaumont, citing the series of crises that disrupted Macron’s presidency, including the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

But a key question for Macron will be whether most of the people who voted for him embrace his platform, or whether they really wanted to prevent a Le Pen victory.

There’s not nearly the same level of enthusiasm for him as when he first ran in 2017, launching his own centrist political movement and becoming France’s youngest president.

The turnout rate on Sunday was projected to be 72 percent, according to France’s public broadcaster, which would make it the lowest in the second round of a presidential election in half a century.

He has disappointed some of his supporters by pushing through tax cuts for the wealthy, being less ambitious than some hoped on climate change, and tacking right on immigration in ways that were calculated to appeal to Le Pen voters but that also echoed the messages from migration-skeptic leaders in Hungary and elsewhere.

In his victory speech, Macron addressed those who voted for him despite their disagreements with his presidency. Their “vote will bind me for the years to come,” he said.

He could still face an onerous second term — marked by resistance on the streets and in Parliament — that may further polarize the country and embolden the fringes of French politics.

“The question is, will he hear the feeling of malaise that exists in the French electorate? … Will he be able to change?” Martigny said. “It’s a very divided country.”

Almost 60 percent of voters cast their ballots for far-right or far-left candidates in the first round of voting this month.

After the election result became clear on Sunday, clashes broke out between protesters and police officers near Place de la République in Paris and in the French cities of Rennes and Lyon.

Later in the night, French police officers shot at a vehicle in Paris after its driver apparently tried to hit them at the Pont Neuf bridge in the city center. A police spokesman confirmed that two people were shot and killed, and another person was injured, but he said there were no indications that the incident was linked to the election.

“Macron should try to listen to all these people who are in difficulty,” said Nathalie Meslin, 58, a lawyer who voted for Macron in Paris on Sunday, even though she said she doesn’t agree with all of his proposals. “In the next five years, this anger is likely to grow, and unfortunately we risk having extremes come to power.”

Macron’s victory certainly did not put an end to the roiling unhappiness that has gripped a large portion of French voters, who see town centers dying out, French factories moving to China, and a trim, tailored president who has sometimes struggled to demonstrate that he can connect to “la France profonde” — the nation’s cultural identity outside cosmopolitan Paris.

That unease could yet throttle back his mandate after June parliamentary elections if he has to share power with some of his skeptics. His challenge is similar to that of leaders from Washington to Rome to Berlin.

“The problem of populism does not end with the Biden victory or the Macron victory so long as the root causes remain unaddressed,” said Rosa Balfour, the director of Carnegie Europe, the Brussels-based branch of the U.S. think tank. “Yes, Macron won a clear mandate,” she said, but a growing slice of France “voted for an agenda that is populist, pro-Russian and anti-European.”

Should Macron’s rivals win power in Parliament, his free-trading ambitions within Europe could be scaled back. He could be forced to press an agenda that is more traditionally “French” and less globalist: protectionist and less market-focused.

“It may result in a Macron who is looking at more protection through Europe,” said Daniela Schwarzer, the Berlin-based executive director for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon on Sunday called the June legislative elections — which are normally foregone conclusions in France and favor the president’s party and allies — the presidential election’s “third round,” suggesting a fierce electoral battle ahead in the coming weeks.

In her speech, Le Pen had similarly called on her supporters to support her party in June. “The game is not quite over,” she said.

“Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon position themselves as leaders of the opposition,” said Antoine Jardin, a political scientist.

Whether Mélenchon’s and Le Pen’s hopes for the legislative elections can translate into a sizable opposition against Macron remained unclear Sunday. “There is a great risk that the electorate will not mobilize” for the two defeated candidates, said Pierre Mathiot, the director of Sciences Po Lille, a political science institute.

It also remains to be seen whether his reelection will calm the far-right currents shaking the continent, or simply offer the bloc a temporary reprieve.

The result reaffirms Macron’s role as Europe’s de facto leader, now that Angela Merkel has retired as Germany’s chancellor and her successor is engulfed by turmoil related to the war in Ukraine. Macron will have another five years to put his stamp on the European Union, which he has sought to turn in a French direction, stretching the strict fiscal rules that were imposed when Germany had the tighter grip.

“In Brussels, he’s now a very strong figure,” said Guntram Wolff, the head of Bruegel, a Brussels-based policy think tank.

But there is a risk that with Macron’s victory, Europe’s centrists lose their sense of urgency about the need to address the growing concerns of citizens who feel vulnerable, Schwarzer said.

“There’s a real danger that European leaders simply go to sleep,” she said.

How Marine Le Pen moderated her image and brought herself closer to the French presidency

When Macron faced off against Le Pen five years ago, he beat her by a margin of more than 30 percentage points. But that the gap narrowed to the single digits at certain points of this campaign cycle suggests that Le Pen has succeeded at normalizing her party and moderating her image.

Supporting the far right was unthinkable for many in France at the time Le Pen took the party over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was known for xenophobia and for calling Nazi gas chambers just a “detail” of World War II.

Le Pen renamed the party from National Front to National Rally in 2018. She downplayed her family links, with campaign posters referring to her as “Marine” or just “M.”

But she has continued to stand by many of her most radical proposals. In this campaign, she advocated for a referendum to end immigration to France, for women to be fined for wearing headscarves in public, and for a French-first approach to policies that would have put her in direct confrontation with European Union laws and values.

Le Pen faced significant resistance to her campaign, both from her rivals in French politics and from abroad. Ahead of the election, the leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal had penned an extraordinary joint op-ed calling for French voters to choose Macron and, they said, “democracy.”

Even if Le Pen made significant gains compared with five years ago, French citizens still ultimately chose a man who has wrapped himself in the blue and gold flag of the European Union.

Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia. Lenny Bronner in New York, James Cornsilk in Paris, and Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.