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French President Emmanuel Macron celebrates after his victory in France's presidential election, at the Champ de Mars in Paris, on April 24, 2022.THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

France has re-elected its centrist President Emmanuel Macron with a comfortable margin after a closely fought campaign, handing a major defeat to the far-right populist Marine Le Pen and reaffirming the country’s place in NATO and the European Union for the next five years.

The result represents success for the coalition of voters from left to right who committed to supporting the relatively unpopular Mr. Macron as a way of blocking the anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic nationalism of Ms. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party.

Mr. Macron acknowledged these disaffected strategic voters in his victory speech on Sunday night.

“I want to thank them and I know that I have a duty toward them in the years to come,” he said. “We will have to be benevolent and respectful because our country is riddled with so many doubts, so many divisions.”

Konrad Yakabuski: Le Pen’s showing testifies to deepening divisions in France, which risks making Macron’s second term a rocky one

His win bolsters European unity and the Western military alliance at a time when they are being tested by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ms. Le Pen is a long-time defender of Vladimir Putin’s regime who vowed to reduce France’s role in NATO and the EU if elected, while Mr. Macron has been a key diplomatic player in talks with Russia and the arming of Ukrainian forces.

This re-election is a striking personal achievement for Mr. Macron, a former banker who founded his own political party before defeating Ms. Le Pen in 2017 to reach the presidency at the age of just 39, promising to transcend ideological boundaries with an administration that was “neither right nor left.” He has cut unemployment and mounted a strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but his perceived elitism has fuelled populist unrest, notably during the gilets jaunes protests in 2018.

In a concession speech, Ms. Le Pen hailed her result as a “smashing victory,” as she came closer to power than her party ever has before. The race revealed a growing mainstream acceptance of Ms. Le Pen’s brand of extreme nationalism. She vowed to ban the wearing of the hijab in public – a measure Mr. Macron said was contrary to French universalism and would ignite a “civil war” – and she promised a referendum on giving French nationals priority immigrants in housing and jobs.

In the midst of Russia’s war against Ukraine, she called for pulling France out of NATO’s integrated military command, while urging Western rapprochement with Mr. Putin. That became a liability during the campaign as Mr. Macron sought to portray her as a Kremlin puppet, highlighting the millions her party borrowed from a Russian bank.

As polls remained tight after a first round of voting that sent the finalists through to a runoff, political leaders across the spectrum urged their supporters to back the incumbent as a barrage, or dam, against the far right. Former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy threw his support behind Mr. Macron, who was once a Socialist economy minister; Yannick Jadot, a leading environmentalist presidential candidate, urged a strategic Macron vote “without pleasure but without hesitation.”

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France's far-right party Rassemblement National leader, Marine Le Pen, waves her supporters after the results of the votes in the second round at Pavillon d'Armenonville on April 24, 2022, in Paris. Ms. Le Pen also hailed her result as a 'smashing victory,' as she came closer to power than her party ever has before.Chesnot/Getty Images

It was the third time in 20 years that the French have been called on to unite against a Le Pen presidency in a runoff vote, and fewer have been willing every time to do so. In 2002, Jacques Chirac refused to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen, the current candidate’s father and founder of her party, before winning 82 per cent of the vote. In 2017, Mr. Macron earned 66 per cent of the vote against Ms. Le Pen.

This time, the dam showed more cracks. The first round of voting on April 10 revealed little enthusiasm for Mr. Macron’s form of economic liberalism and pro-European foreign policy. Candidates of the far right and far left received a combined total of more than 50 per cent of the vote, roughly double Mr. Macron’s tally.

Projections at the close of the polls on Sunday showed Mr. Macron winning 58.5 per cent of the vote against 41.5 per cent for Ms. Le Pen.

A long-term strategy of “de-demonization” continued to improve Ms. Le Pen’s standing leading up to the runoff vote. She successfully managed to soften her image by abandoning more radical proposals, such as leaving the EU outright, and through symbolic gestures such as expelling her father from the party after he repeated his claim that the Holocaust was a “detail of history.”

She also courted working-class voters by focusing more on pocketbook issues, such as cutting the tax on fuel, and by railing against Mr. Macron for his government’s affinity with big business, including its close ties to the American consulting firm McKinsey.

The candidacy of Éric Zemmour, an even more extreme opponent of immigration at the head of a party called Reconquest!, further helped moderate Ms. Le Pen’s image. He received about 7 per cent of the vote in the first round while warning about immigrants “replacing” France’s old-stock population, a theory Ms. Le Pen has rejected.

A series of unpopular economic reforms by Mr. Macron, including a tax cut that benefited the wealthy and a proposed hike in the retirement age, earned him a reputation as “president of the rich” and fed into Ms. Le Pen’s self-presentation as a tribune of the working class.

With his lofty way of speaking and technocratic policies, Mr. Macron is a perfect “lightning rod for populists,” said Catherine Fieschi, the Paris-based director of Counterpoint, a political research and advisory firm, and author of Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism.

Faced with a choice between two familiar and widely disliked figures, many French voters abstained from casting their ballots on Sunday. Early estimates put turnout for the second round at 72 per cent, which would be the lowest rate since 1969.

From behind the counter of the wine shop where she works in Paris, Emma Brunant said that although the prospect of a Le Pen presidency left her “sad” and “frightened,” she couldn’t bring herself to vote for either candidate.

“You have one who’s extreme right and another who’s at the beck and call of every big industry,” she said.

With a report from Reuters

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