(CN) — Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to win reelection in 20 years by easily defeating Marine Le Pen, his far-right challenger, on Sunday.
His runoff win was met with a collective sigh of relief in the European Union because a Le Pen victory would have been a massive shock to the bloc's liberal democratic system, as cataclysmic as Brexit and the potential to endanger NATO unity over the war in Ukraine.
Instead, Macron cruised to a second term by winning 58.5% of the vote to Le Pen's 41.5%, making him the first incumbent since Jacques Chirac in 2002 to win a second term. Sunday's runoff was a repeat of the 2017 election between Macron and Le Pen. This time around, though, Le Pen can claim a partial win because she did much better than her 2017 result of 34% of the vote.
Internationally, Macron's reelection will allow him to consolidate his position as Europe's leading figure on the world stage following the retirement of Germany's longtime chancellor Angela Merkel from politics and the exit of Great Britain from the EU. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat elected as Germany's new chancellor, is still finding his footing on the international stage. Macron, meanwhile, has become the leading voice for deeper integration of the EU, and he's led diplomatic efforts to stop the war in Ukraine.
The ease of Macron's reelection nevertheless does not dispel the reality that France is a deeply divided nation, and his victory had more to do with opposition to Le Pen than support for his pro-business and pro-European platform.
In his victory speech in front of the Eiffel Tower, Macron acknowledged the deep divisions in French society and vowed to be a “president of all us.”
“I know that a number of French people have voted for me today not to support my ideas but to stop the ideas of the far right,” Macron said. “I’m not the candidate of one camp any more, but the president of all of us.”
The level of his support and ability to govern will be determined in June when French voters go back to the polls for legislative elections. Polling remains limited on how those elections may turn out.
In 2017, the Republic on the March, a new liberal party Macron created in conjunction with his unorthodox bid for the presidency, won a majority, but its continued dominance in the National Assembly is far from certain. It has struggled to build a nationwide grassroots party system and performed poorly in recent elections for the European parliament and French municipalities.
Even as Macron basked in the glow of success and vowed to unite France, anger over Macron's reelection erupted with large street protests in Paris, and Lyon that saw police clashing with demonstrators into the night on Sunday.
Macron's first five-year term was marked by crisis and difficulties with his ambitious pro-business neoliberal reform agenda largely derailed by the “yellow vest” protests in late 2018. Still, he slashed taxes for employers and on wealth while making it easier to fire workers.
Pundits see Sunday's election results as further proof that France is going through a period of political and economic turmoil, with Macron representing the affluent, progressive and urban voter.
“France wakes up as a more fractured country than it was in 2017 with France’s underlying socio-economic cleavages all hardening” under Macron's first term, said Alberto Alemanno, a law professor at HEC Paris Business School and political commentator. “Cities vs. rural, young vs. old, technos vs. populists, secular vs. religious, affluent vs. low income.”
Macron's policies have sharpened these differences, and he proved for many to be a “president of the rich,” as yellow vest protesters labeled him.
“In Macron’s France, the purchasing power of the poorest 5 per cent has fallen, while the richest have become even wealthier,” said Sudhir Hazareesingh, a historian at the University of Oxford who specializes in French history, writing in the Financial Times.
Hazareesingh noted that 39% of affluent voters backed Macron in the first round of the presidential election while low-income voters overwhelmingly favored Le Pen and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Dissatisfaction with Macron and Le Pen was reflected in the low turnout on Sunday with abstention estimated at a record 28%.
The June legislative elections will be critical in steering Macron's second term. In a second term, Macron has said he wants to try to raise the age of retirement and carry out other pro-business policies that were sidelined by the yellow vest protests and coronavirus pandemic.
On Sunday, Macron promised to “efficiently” respond to the “anger and disagreement” of voters who picked Le Pen.
Le Pen made it into the runoff by focusing on bread-and-butter issues and vowing to help small businesses and workers by cutting taxes, shoring up welfare programs and not raising the age of retirement.
Although Le Pen has toned down her anti-Muslim and anti-EU rhetoric, during the campaign she made it clear that her far-right moorings were still intact. She said she wanted to ban the Islamic headscarf and veil in public places, curb immigration and deport people not in the country legally.
She also campaigned on France playing a reduced role in NATO, reestablishing relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and reining in the supranational powers of the EU.
In a televised debate on Wednesday, Macron attacked Le Pen for her past ties to Putin and his regime and said her ban on the Muslim headscarf would spark a “civil war” in France.
In conceding defeat, Le Pen called her election result “a shining victory in itself.”
“The ideas we represent are reaching new heights,” she said.
Still, Le Pen's future is uncertain after losing three presidential elections. At 53, this may be her last presidential run. Her party is facing a threat from the new political party created by far-right pundit and television personality Eric Zemmour, who picked up the support of Marion Marechal, Le Pen's niece.
Macron's win was welcomed by EU leaders.
“Bravo Emmanuel. In this turbulent period, we need a solid Europe and a France totally committed to a more sovereign and more strategic European Union,” tweeted Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, a body made up of EU leaders.
Scholz, the German chancellor, said the vote delivered “a strong message in favor of Europe.”
Macron is expected to make his first foreign trip in his second term to see Scholz in Berlin next week.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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