French President Emmanuel Macron and the forces of liberal democracy won a reprieve in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday.
Despite fears from Macron supporters that he would barely take first place, he won 27.4% with nearly all the votes counted, well ahead of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who won 24% in the of his third presidential election. Macron’s relatively strong performance has increased the likelihood of him winning when the two face off in the second round on April 24.
Sign of the discontent that Macron’s pro-business policies have sparked in a significant part of the French electorate, the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was running close to Le Pen with 21.6%.
Mélenchon’s strength puts Macron in a position where he has to plead with leftist voters who don’t like the president very much to support him rather than abstain in the second round or vote for Le Pen. Mélenchon aided Macron in his concession speech by saying, “You shouldn’t vote for Madame Le Pen.”
Sunday’s result was a relief for Macron, an eloquent defender of liberal democratic values. Critic of a narrow and authoritarian nationalism, he drifts to the right on immigration in the face of protest from the right.
Most Western leaders – center-left and center-right – will strongly support Macron lest Le Pen threaten the European Union and unified Western support for Ukraine.
Macron has combined tax cuts and business-friendly policies with substantial new education programs, including universal preschool education from age 3 and aggressive job training efforts. Macron was not a tax reprimand. During the pandemic, he spent freely with a “whatever it takes” attitude to protect jobs.
But as much as Macron has spoken of the imperative to uplift the economically marginalized regions of France, he has never shaken the image he created for himself early on as being “president of the rich” and not did not understand the country outside of Paris. His aloof attitude and background as an investment banker didn’t help. It was incumbent on Le Pen to poach rhetoric from the left and present herself as the candidate of the economically precarious.
There was an ironic aspect to Macron’s election slogan, “Nous tous”, which means “all of us”. He painted a happy picture of a united France even as the election itself showed a nation deeply torn apart.
Beyond left and right
The paradox of Macron’s plan to advance a policy “beyond left and right” is that in the institutional sense, it has contributed to weakening the big center.
Nationally, center-left Socialists and center-right Republicans are close to death. On Sunday, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a candidate for the once powerful Socialist Party, won just 2% of the vote. Valérie Pécresse, standard-bearer of the Republicans, the center-right party whose lineage goes back to General Charles de Gaulle, obtained only 5%.
Le Pen’s durability was a tribute to his ability to remake his image without changing his underlying right-wing agenda. In what could be a warning to Democrats in the United States, she downplayed her problems with immigration and fear of Muslims and focused on the cost of living. Macron acknowledged the power of the issue in his victory speech saying that only his approach would lower prices.
She also benefited from the presence of a candidate who threatened to condemn her by splitting the far-right vote. Eric Zemmour, talk show host and author, was even more extreme in his anti-immigrant rhetoric than Le Pen.
But Le Pen used Zemmour to help him convert into a more moderate “presidential” candidate. Both had embraced Putin, but Le Pen backed off his pro-Putin stance somewhat, calling on France to accept Ukrainian refugees while Zemmour called for rejecting them.
By allowing Macron to cast himself as a global statesman, the Ukraine conflict was initially a boon for the president. But Macron used it to stay away from the campaign trail, which offended many voters and fueled his image of imperiousness, and his poll numbers plummeted.
His temporary setback, however, may have finally pushed moderate voters in his direction as the danger of a Le Pen presidency grew. The poor performance of Pécresse, Hidalgo and environmental candidate Yannick Jadot seemed to reflect this switch to Macron. He thanked the defeated candidates who came out against Le Pen for “their weighting in the face of the far right”.
The good news on Sunday is that the total for the two far-right candidates was lower than seemed likely just a few months ago. But the burden for Macron is enormous. He must fend off an extreme right that threatens not only his own nation, but liberal Democrats around the world.
EJ Dionne is a professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is “Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country.”