Convincing victory disguises steep challenges for Macron

The New York Times
Paris, FranceWritten By: Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut ©️ 2022 The New York TimesUpdated: Apr 26, 2022, 11:33 PM IST
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French President Emmanuel Macron waves on stage next to his wife, French first lady Brigitte Macron, after being re-elected as president, following the results in the second round of the 2022 French presidential election, during his victory rally at the Champ de Mars in Paris, France Photograph:(Reuters)

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In the view of many, the electoral system worked as it was intended to, with nearly 60 per cent of those who voted joining together to defend against a xenophobic and nationalist far-right widely regarded as a threat to French democracy

There is no doubt that President Emmanuel Macron of France won a convincing reelection over Marine Le Pen, his far-right challenger, on Sunday. Macron scored a thumping 17 point margin of victory, becoming the first French leader to be reelected to a second term in 20 years.

In the view of many, the electoral system worked as it was intended to, with nearly 60% of those who voted joining together to defend against a xenophobic and nationalist far-right widely regarded as a threat to French democracy.

That is, perhaps, unless you are a supporter of Le Pen, who was blocked in the final round for a second consecutive time.

“I think we’re heading into five more years of crisis, probably worse, because people are just fed up,” Sébastien Denneulin, 46, a Le Pen supporter, said Monday morning in Roye, a northern far-right stronghold.

Even as Le Pen has edged her party into the mainstream, ensconcing it firmly in the political establishment, her supporters say they are growing frustrated with a lack of representation in the political system.

The far right enjoyed its strongest ever showing at the ballot box on Sunday, as Le Pen widened her appeal with pocketbook issues important in parts of the country like this northern region, where in the past two generations voters have shifted to the far right from the political left along with deindustrialization.

The challenge for Macron will be how to lure back into the political fold the 41.5% of voters who cast ballots for Le Pen — and the roughly 28% who opted not to vote at all. Despite the president’s clear victory, the election results disguised myriad challenges that could make his next five years in office even more tumultuous than the last.

As French news media organizations drew up maps of the nationwide breakdown of the runoff vote, they showed a widening and deepening fracture along the French equivalent of American blue and red states.

In the reddest areas of France, there was frustration that Le Pen had been defeated once again and a strong sentiment that her supporters were continuing to be shut out of the political system.

In Roye, some people gathered at the QG brasserie voiced anger when they learned of the results on their smartphones on Sunday evening. One man set fire to his voter’s card.

Tony Rochon, 39, a roofer, said he had voted for a Le Pen — either Marine or her father, Jean-Marie — all of his life. But each time, he said, other political parties had united to deny a Le Pen victory in the presidential race. Then the same thing had happened in legislative elections — also a two-round system — effectively marginalizing Le Pen’s influence in Parliament.

In 2017, for instance, while Le Pen garnered 34% of the vote in the presidential election, her party secured only eight seats in Parliament — not even enough to form a parliamentary group.

That year, Macron promised to introduce proportional representation in Parliament, which experts say would better reflect the population’s political beliefs. But he failed to fulfill his pledge.

“That’s why the only option for us is to take to the streets,” said Rochon, who joined the Yellow Vest anti-government protests in Paris. “Macron has no legitimacy.”

He and his wife, Adelaide Rochon, 33, a dental assistant who has also always voted for Le Pen’s party, said they believed that the vote had been rigged.

“We don’t know a single person around us who voted for Macron,” Adelaide Rochon said. “It’s impossible that he won.”

Not impossible, actually.

In Roye, a town of 6,000 people, two out of three voters backed Le Pen in the runoff. But nationwide Macron drew many votes — 47%, according to one poll — not necessarily because people endorsed him, but because they joined the so-called Republican front against the far right, whose politics remain anathema to a majority of French despite Le Pen’s persistent efforts to remake and soften her image.

For others, like Madeleine Rosier, a member of the leftist France Unbowed, a choice between Macron and what she deemed an unacceptable far-right candidate was no choice at all. She did not cast a ballot on Sunday after voting for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the veteran leftist who came in third place in the first round.

“I didn’t want to grant Emmanuel Macron legitimacy,” she said.

The abstention rate — the highest in a runoff since 1969 — reflected the widespread disillusionment with the political system that sent protesters from towns like Roye to the Champs-Élysées in Paris as part of the anti-government Yellow Vest movement in 2018, the biggest political crisis of Macron’s first term.

That anger persists in many pockets of the country. In another measure of political disillusionment, more than 3 million people cast blank or null-and-void ballots — and that does not include the 13.7 million who opted not to vote at all.

Étienne Ollion, a sociologist and professor at the Polytechnique engineering school, said the importance of such voters and those who reluctantly backed Macron to keep Le Pen from power, as well as the level of abstention give Macron “a relatively limited legitimacy.”

The election results underscored a growing sense of “democratic fatigue and democratic fracture” in France, Ollion said.

Given Macron’s unfulfilled pledge to reform Parliament, Chloé Morin, a political scientist at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, a Paris-based think tank, said there were doubts about Macron’s “capacity to take into account this extremely divided political landscape and opposition parties that will inevitably, in all logic, be little represented” in Parliament.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, an ally of Macron and a former Green member of the European Parliament, said in an interview that “an unfair French electoral system” had led to governing that ignores the political opposition and various actors of society.

“To have a Parliament where someone who gets 42% of the votes only has about 20 lawmakers, that’s unacceptable,” he said, referring to Le Pen.

Shortly after Macron was reelected on Sunday, there were immediate signs that discontent surrounding French democracy would mark his second term.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Paris and other big cities to oppose Macron’s second term. The protests were marred by violent clashes with police, who fired tear gas in Paris to disperse the crowd.

Protesters in Paris converged from the city center to the large Place de la République, chanting a song originating from the Yellow Vest movement, “We are here, even if Macron doesn’t want it, we are here!”

By midnight, the police had cleared the Place de la République of protesters. But they had scrawled, in red, a warning on the large statue of Marianne, an emblem of the French Republic, in the middle of the square: “Beware of revenge when all the poor people stand up.”