On Saturday, Emmanuel Macron and his wife took a stroll on the beach in Le Touquet, the resort town on the English Channel where the couple own a villa that has been in Brigitte Macron’s family for decades. Dressed in jeans and a hoodie, a relaxed-looking Mr. Macron appeared to be taking advantage of a 24-hour ban on campaigning before Sunday’s final round in France’s presidential election to get some fresh air and exhibit his characteristic self-confidence about the outcome.
If Mr. Macron’s re-election was not entirely the walk in the park most expected a couple of months ago, his comfortable victory validates the twofold electoral strategy he had meticulously telegraphed from the outset. The first part involved overseeing the elimination of his main centre-right and centre-left rivals on the April 10 first ballot, ensuring he would face off on the second-ballot against his far-right nemesis, National Rally Leader Marine Le Pen, just as he had in 2017.
That way, Mr. Macron knew he would be assured of victory simply by being the least objectionable candidate on the ballot for a majority of French voters.
To be sure, the strategy that worked wonders in 2017 was far riskier this time around. The far-right had made significant inroads since 2017 by exploiting the antipathy toward Mr. Macron’s elitism and liberal economic reforms. It had fed off Islamic terrorist attacks within France to fan the flames of xenophobia. Political debate in the months leading up the campaign had been dominated by far-right agitator Éric Zemmour, who advocated for even more radical policies than Ms. Le Pen.
Then there were the signs that supporters of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a majority of whom voted for Mr. Macron on the second ballot in 2017, would refuse to do so this time to show their discontent with his economic and social policies.
In the end, enough French voters who had chosen neither Mr. Macron nor Ms. Le Pen in the first round answered the call of most of the other first-ballot candidates, two former French presidents, several ex-prime ministers and a slew of civil society organizations, business and union leaders and artists to prevent the anti-Europe, anti-NATO Ms. Le Pen from getting anywhere near the Élysée Palace.
In a Friday op-ed in Le Monde, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said French voters had “to choose between a democratic candidate, who believes that France is stronger in a powerful and autonomous European Union, and a far-right candidate, who openly sides with those who attack our freedom and democracy, which are the fundamental values we inherited directly from the French Enlightenment.”
Ms. Le Pen, who had spent years airbrushing her harder edges, was forced on the defensive regarding her relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “You’re talking to your banker when you talk to Russia,” Mr. Macron quipped during Wednesday’s televised debate, in reference to a Russian bank loan contracted by Ms. Le Pen’s party in 2017, and which it is still repaying.
That line was almost as devastating as Mr. Macron’s attack on Ms. Le Pen’s promise to ban women from wearing the Muslim head scarf in public. “You’re going to create a civil war with that,” Mr. Macron warned in the debate, adding that Ms. Le Pen’s proposal to hold a referendum on reducing immigration and deporting illegal immigrants and foreign-born criminals was unconstitutional.
Ms. Le Pen had tried to distract from her most xenophobic policies by emphasizing her promise to restore the purchasing power of French households hit by inflation. She vowed to eliminate France’s 20 per cent value-added tax on a basket of 100 essential goods and slash the VAT to 5 per cent on energy bills. Similarly, her signature promise to reduce the retirement age to 60, from the current 62, aimed to win over some of Mr. Mélenchon’s voters. But few took the bait.
Mr. Macron had vowed to increase the retirement age to 65 by 2031, in a bid to eliminate the huge deficit in France’s public pension system. But he conceded in recent days that he is open to compromising on at least some elements of his plan.
Indeed, the fate of Mr. Macron’s pension reform proposals now depends on the outcome of June’s legislative elections, in which Mr. Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) will need to hold on to its majority in the National Assembly in order to implement much of its agenda.
With France’s traditional centre-right and centre-left parties having been relegated to the margins by LREM, Mr. Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) is set to emerge as the main opposition to LREM in the June vote. The National Rally and Mr. Zemmour’s party, Reconquête, risk splitting the far-right vote between them.
Still, the French far-right has dramatically increased its share of the popular vote in each election since 2012. Together, Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Zemmour and another far-right candidate won almost a third of the vote on the first ballot. Ms. Le Pen’s final score on the second ballot of about 42 per cent testifies to the deepening divisions within French society since Mr. Macron took power.
That risks making Mr. Macron’s second term a rocky one.
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