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Macron won in France — but Le Pen came closer than before

Marine Le Pen shifted toward a more socialist economic policy and focused less on far-right rhetoric

- April 25, 2022

With 58 percent of Sunday’s votes, Emmanuel Macron was elected to a second term as president of France. His victory was never much in doubt, though the strong showing of National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round created some serious anxieties among political elites in France and around the world. After the surprise Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, a Le Pen victory no longer seemed impossible.

Here are three takeaways about the French election and what comes next.

High politics helped Macron. Then it hurt him.

Macron declared his candidacy at the last possible moment, a mere six weeks ago. The last Western leader to still talk with Vladimir Putin, Macron engaged in a fervent diplomatic shuffle in the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This high-stakes international initiative bought him some time during which he did not have to muddy himself in the campaign melee with the other French candidates. And Macron’s diplomacy also gave him international stature.

At first, this was a winning strategy. Russia’s aggression forced Macron’s competitors to take a stand. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was especially discomfiting for Le Pen, who had often spoken highly of Putin and defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Le Pen’s party, Macron pointed out during the April 20 debate between the two runoff candidates, is being financed through a loan from a Russian bank.

Macron is likely to win the French presidency, in part thanks to Putin

Like others in Europe and the rest of the world, French citizens were horrified by the brutal images coming from a hot war taking place on European soil. Macron had at least tried to prevent this tragedy, but only Putin could be blamed for the failure of diplomacy. Le Pen was in free fall in the polls, as was her far-right challenger, Eric Zemmour, who had made similar statements praising Putin’s Russia.

As the weeks wore on, however, public interest and outrage about Ukraine started to wane. French voters no longer feared the war would spread and endanger them directly. They met few Ukrainian refugees personally — and many of the refugees arriving in France reportedly were headed to other countries. Le Pen’s message that Macron was only interested in high politics instead of the plight of ordinary French citizens started to resonate with many voters.

Economic issues helped normalize Le Pen

A few months ago, the campaign buzz was centered around Zemmour, France’s closest equivalent to Trump. A political newcomer, the media star proposed a nationalist platform based on identity, old-fashioned patriotism, anti-wokism, and overt anti-immigration and anti-Islam policies. For a while, analysts thought he might damage Le Pen’s base of support, or even take her place in the runoff.

Instead, he contributed to Le Pen’s “de-demonization,” forcing her away from nationalist identity politics and toward focusing on a pocketbook economic platform designed to increase French citizens’ purchasing power. She denounced Macron as the “president of the rich” who does not care about inflation — calling him an elitist who arrogantly talks down to those who have trouble making ends meet. She proposed an economic agenda hard to distinguish from that of the far left or the left wing of the old Socialist Party, calling for increased salaries and a lower retirement age, and the use of “economic patriotism” to produce and buy in France. This was nearly a winning strategy.

Will the women of France support Marine Le Pen?

France’s political landscape remains in turmoil

The reshuffling of French politics that was visible five years ago continued in the 2022 election.

Going into the 2017 election, French politics was dominated by two parties alternating in power: the left-wing Socialist Party (PS), the party of President François Hollande, and the right-wing Les Républicains (LR), home of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. In the 2017 first-round election, the PS imploded, garnering a record low 7 percent of the votes. The PS never rebounded, and this time around, the Socialist candidate and current Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo received a negligible 1.75 percent of the April 10 first-round votes.

In turn, the 2022 election saw the implosion of the mainstream right. LR candidate Valérie Pécresse was squeezed between the center, firmly occupied by Macron, and the populist far right (Le Pen) and the nationalist far right (Zemmour). She received less than 5 percent of the votes. The old rivalry between the mainstream left and the mainstream right no longer dominates French politics.

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France’s legislative elections, often considered a “third round,” will take place in June. Opposition parties are already starting to campaign and strategize about alliances in hopes of getting enough votes to provide a counterbalance to Macron. Right now the French political landscape is divided between a populist far left led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, a center movement around Macron’s La Republique En Marche (LREM), and a populist far right led by Le Pen’s National Rally. Who wins the legislative elections will determine the choice of France’s next prime minister, and policy agenda, for the next five years.

What comes after that is very unsettled. Macron is limited to two terms as president, so he cannot run again. He has not yet created a party with a durable political identity, so it’s unclear whether LREM can survive without him. Le Pen came closer to the presidency this time than she did five years ago — but she’s now a three-time presidential loser. Mélenchon, at 70, is older than the other candidates. There is speculation that he might retire if he does not become prime minister after the June parliamentary elections.

In all likelihood, French domestic politics will continue to reorganize around new parties — and new cleavages.

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Sophie Meunier is senior research scholar at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and co-director of the European Union Program at Princeton.