Macron to Face Le Pen for President as French Gravitate Toward Extremes

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron will face Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, in the second round of France’s presidential election.

With 92 percent of the votes cast on Sunday counted, Macron, a centrist, led with around 27.4 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 24.3 percent. Ms Le Pen benefited from a late rise reflecting widespread discontent over rising prices, security and immigration.

With the war in Ukraine and Western unity likely to be tested as the fighting continues, Ms. Le Pen’s strong performance demonstrated the enduring appeal of nationalist and xenophobic currents in Europe. The extreme left and right parties won around 51 percent of the vote, a clear sign of the extent of French anger and frustration.

An anti-NATO and more pro-Russian France in the event of a final Le Pen victory would cause deep concern in allied capitals and could fracture the united transatlantic response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But Macron, after a lackluster campaign, will go into the second round as the slight favourite, having fared little better than recent opinion polls suggested. Some had shown him leading Le Pen by just two points.

The principled French rejection of Le Pen’s brand of anti-immigrant nationalism has frayed as illiberal politics have spread in both Europe and the United States. She has successfully softened her presentation, if not her fierce conviction that the French should be privileged over foreigners and that the curtain should be drawn on France as a “land of immigration.”

Ms. Le Pen’s ties to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia are close, though she has taken pains to downplay them in recent weeks. This month, she was quick to congratulate Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist and anti-immigrant leader, on his fourth consecutive victory in parliamentary elections.

“I will restore order to France in five years,” Ms. Le Pen declared to her cheering supporters, calling on all French people to join her in what she called “an election of civilization” in the that the “legitimate preponderance of the French language and culture would be guaranteed and full “sovereignty in all domains” restored.

The choice facing the French people on April 24 was between “division, injustice and disorder” on the one hand, and the “gathering of the French around social justice and protection”, he said.

Macron told his flag-waving supporters: “I want a France in a strong Europe that maintains its alliances with the great democracies to defend itself, not a France that, outside of Europe, has populists and xenophobes as its only allies. International. That’s not us.

And he added: “Let’s not fool ourselves, nothing has been decided, and the debate that we will have in the next 15 days is decisive for our country and for Europe.”

Last week, in an interview in Le Parisien newspaper, Macron called Le Pen a “racist” of “great brutality.” Ms Le Pen responded by saying the President’s comments were “outrageous and aggressive”. She called favoring the French over foreigners “the only moral, legal and admissible policy.”

They will take off the gloves when they clash over the future of France, at a time when Britain’s departure from the European Union and the end of Angela Merkel’s long-running chancellorship in Germany have placed a particular burden on the French leadership.

Macron wants to transform Europe into a credible military power with “strategic autonomy.” Ms Le Pen, whose party has received funding from a Russian bank and more recently from a Hungarian bank, has other priorities.

The second round, on April 24, will be a repeat of the last election, in 2017, when Macron, then a relative newcomer to politics intent on breaking down old divisions between left and right, defeated Le Pen with 66.9. percent of the votes. vote for 33.1 percent of him.

It is almost certain that the final result this time will be much closer than it was five years ago. Polls taken before Sunday’s vote showed Macron winning by just 52 percent to Le Pen’s 48 percent in the second round. That could change in the next two weeks, when the candidates debate for the first time in the campaign.

Reflecting France’s drift to the right in recent years, no center-left candidate qualified for the second round. The Socialist Party, long a mainstay of postwar French politics, collapsed, leaving Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left anti-NATO candidate with his France Unbowed movement, in third place with around 21 percent. hundred.

Ms. Le Pen, who heads the National Grouping, formerly the National Front, was helped by the candidacy of Éric Zemmour, a fiercely xenophobic TV pundit turned politician, who became the go-to politician for provocation against immigrants , which made her seem more conventional and innocuous. In the end, Zemmour’s campaign fizzled out and he got about 7 percent of the vote.

Mr. Zemmour immediately called on his supporters to back Ms. Le Pen in the second round. “Opposite Mrs. Le Pen is a man who allowed 2 million immigrants to enter France,” Mr. Zemmour declared.

The threatening scenario for Macron is that Zemmour’s vote will go to Le Pen, and that she will be bolstered by the broad section of the left that feels betrayed or simply viscerally hostile to the president, as well as some centre-right voters. for whom immigration is the central issue.

More than half of the French — supporters of Le Pen, Zemmour and Mélenchon — now seem to favor parties that are generally anti-NATO, anti-American and hostile to the European Union. By contrast, the broad center — Macron’s La République en Marche party, the Socialist Party, the center-right Republicans and the Green Party — got a combined total of around 40 percent.

These were numbers that revealed the degree of anxiety in France, and perhaps also the degree of distrust in its democracy. They will be more comforting to Ms. Le Pen than to Mr. Macron, even if Mr. Mélenchon said his supporters should not give “a single vote” to Ms. Le Pen.

However, he refused to endorse Macron.

At Ms. Le Pen’s headquarters, activist Frederic Sarmiento said: “She will benefit from a large transfer of votes,” pointing to Zemmour’s supporters, but also to some on the left who, according to polls, will support the Mrs. Le Pen in the second round.

“I am very worried, it will be a very close second round,” said Nicolas Tenzer, an author who teaches political science at the University of Sciences Po. “Many on the left will abstain rather than vote for Macron.”

Macron garnered immediate support for the second round from the defeated Socialist, Communist, Green and center-right candidates, but between them they did not exceed 15 percent of the first-round vote. He, too, may benefit from a late surge of support for the Republic in a country with bitter experience of far-right wartime rule.

In the end, Sunday’s choice fell on Macron against the extreme right and left of the political spectrum, a sign of his effective dismantling of the old political order. Now essentially built around one personality, the restless president, French democracy does not seem to have arrived at any sustainable alternative structure.

If the two second-round qualifiers are the same as in 2017, they have been changed by circumstances. While Macron represented reformist hope in 2017, he is now widely seen as a leader who shifted to the right and a highly personalized top-down style of government. The glitter is out of it.

On the place of Islam in France, on immigration controls and police powers, Macron has taken a hard line, judging that his right wing would win or lose the election.

Addressing supporters after Sunday’s vote, he said he wants a France that “resolutely fights Islamist separatism,” a term he uses to describe conservative or radical Muslims who reject French values ​​such as gender equality, but also a France that allows all believers to practice their beliefs.

His shift to the right came at a cost. The centre-left, once the core of his support, felt betrayed. The extent to which the left will vote for him in the second round will be a major source of concern, as already reflected in Macron’s recent abrupt comeback hymns to “brotherhood,” “solidarity” and equal opportunity.

Throughout the campaign, Macron seemed disengaged, engrossed in countless phone calls to Putin that proved ineffective.

A comfortable lead in the polls has disappeared in recent weeks as resentment has grown over the president’s indifference. He struggled throughout the five years of his presidency to overcome an image of aloofness, learning to reach more people, only to suffer an apparent relapse in recent weeks.

Still, Macron steered the country through the long coronavirus crisis, pushed unemployment to its lowest level in a decade and boosted economic growth. In doing so, he has convinced many French people that he has what it takes to lead and represent France with dignity on the world stage.

Ms. Le Pen, who would go on to be France’s first female president, is also seen differently. Now, in her third attempt to become president—Jacques Chirac won in 1995 after failing twice—she has bowed to reason (and popular opinion) on two important fronts: renouncing earlier promises to get France out of European Union and the Eurozone. Still, many of his proposals, such as barring EU citizens from some of the same social benefits as French citizens, would violate core European treaties.

The leader of the National Association, formerly the National Front, lowered the tone of her language to appear more “presidential.” She smiled a lot, she opened up about her personal struggles, and she seemed to be closer to the daily worries of the French, especially regarding the sharp increase in gasoline prices and inflation.

But many things did not change. His program includes a plan to hold a referendum that would lead to a change in the Constitution that would prohibit any policy that leads to “the installation in the national territory of such a large number of foreigners that it would change the composition and identity of the French.” people.”

He also wants to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves and fine them if they do.

Sunday’s abstention rate, between 26 and 28 percent, was several points higher than the last election. Not since 2002 has it been this high.

This seemed to reflect disillusionment with politics as an agent of change, the domino effect of the war in Ukraine, and a loss of faith in democracy. It was part of the same anger that pushed so many French people to political extremes.

aurelien breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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