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Millions of French Voters Held Their Noses and Voted for Macron to Defeat Le Pen

Understanding the messy realignment in French politics and what might come next.
April 25, 2022
Millions of French Voters Held Their Noses and Voted for Macron to Defeat Le Pen
(Composite by Hannah Yoest / Photos: Shutterstock)

When Emmanuel Macron made his way to a minimalist podium in front of the Eiffel Tower last night, the DJ paused the Euro-techno dance music to blast out Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—the European anthem. Accompanied by dozens of school-age kids, the victorious incumbent was telegraphing his own certain idea of France in the twenty-first century.

But France itself is not necessarily thrilled with Macron’s vision.

Although Sunday’s election results have largely been depicted by the American press as a huge victory for Macron, it is worth looking a little more closely at the context of the vote and what might come next. In the French system, the top two candidates qualify for a runoff election two weeks after the first round, which is a free-for-all of personalities and platforms. At the end of round one, Macron had just under 28 percent; Marine Le Pen, the perennial darling of France’s far right, garnered 23 percent. Just behind Le Pen was the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose 22 percent of voters were “caught between the fascist or the capitalist,” as one voter despairingly put it. Various other candidates ranging from “not-quite-as-crazy-as-Le Pen” to “probable hammer-and-sickle tattoos” accounted for the last quarter of the electorate.

In a break with tradition, Mélenchon refrained from endorsing a candidate but quietly encouraged voting against Le Pen. Opinion polls do not indicate how many people held their noses to cast votes for Macron to counter Le Pen, who were facing off for the second time, following Macron’s victory five years ago. While Macron won yesterday with a solid 58.5 percent to Le Pen’s 41.5, he will still face significant challenges soon: Elections for the National Assembly will take place in June, and the runners-up for Macron’s job are eager for another fight.

The view from most European capitals was consistent with Washington’s: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made his preference quite clear before the vote; the European Commission and its (German) president were also, unsurprisingly, relieved. Vladimir Putin, though, is probably disappointed; one of Macron’s most effective criticisms of Le Pen in the final debate last Wednesday concerned the Le Pen campaign’s financial ties to Russian loans. (After Le Pen pointed out that Macron had also sidled up to Putin, Macron countered with, “I hosted Putin as a head of state, not my banker.”) Macron’s emphasis on France’s Europeanness and cosmopolitanism has always been one of his most prominent rhetorical motifs.

This election brought into focus two important themes in contemporary French politics.

The first is the ugly realignment underway. The old bipolar left/right distinction—an artifact of the French democratic tradition—is clearly in need of an update, if it is not simply destined for le file circulaire. French politics has developed three sides, with distinctive but sometimes overlapping views on the role of the state, the role of the free market, immigration, the status of Europe, and foreign policy. Many French voters see the “centrist” Macron as simultaneously a rapacious capitalist (he faced scandal after hiring McKinsey to advise the French government) and a bloodless technocrat—and either way, as uninterested in France’s poor. The far right and the far left have both sworn to oppose Macron’s reforms in France’s pension system (raising the retirement age to a geezerly 65, up from 62). Some old associations do remain intact: Immigration restrictions are a phenomenon of the right alone. But in general, the conflicts, alliances, and positioning between three political communities will add a degree of unpredictability—and likely stalemate—to France’s electoral and political future. Macron’s rather conciliatory victory speech distributed enough olive branches that someone could use the wood to build a second ark. It is clear that he recognizes he will face even greater headwinds in the next five years than he did over the last five.

The second is the rise of the French far right. Marine Le Pen’s Make France Great Again–style isolationism is geared to métropolitaine France but not to the metropolises of France. During the final debate, it was Le Pen who referred to de Gaulle and his role as a symbol of French unity. Other than the election, she conceded very little in her fiery concession speech yesterday. The results may have been less close than commentators anticipated, but Le Pen’s 41.5 percent is seven percentage points better than her performance five years ago, and Macron was forced to respond to “the anger” of so many voters—Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s voters—in his victory speech. Le Pen toned down her anti-EU rhetoric during the election, but it is clear that she still sees the EU as a problem and considers her electoral gains proof of a nationalist realignment in French politics. Le Pen called for a “France for the French.” The idea is at the heart of her political vision. Le Pen’s France would be more provincial and isolationist, but more actively involved on the domestic level. It is worth noting that while Le Pen and Mélenchon loathe each other, there are broad similarities in their general attitudes toward governing.

And France can, from time to time, be amazingly provincial. Even Le Pen’s supporters like the idea of “Europe,” so long as it’s a French Europe. They struggle to account for how their isolationism might comport with their desire to honor France’s colonial legacy for contributing to global peace and stability. There is, of course, another globetrotting country that can, from time to time, also be amazingly provincial, whose tourists, innocents abroad, simply expect that English will be spoken wherever they roam and cannot fathom lacking ketchup in a land of great tomatoes.

The problem with American provincial isolationism, however, is that it underestimates the benefits of the Pax Americana for Americans. This includes the extent to which our businesses benefit from the imperfect yet widespread use of English as a lingua franca (an ironic term), the dollar as a reserve currency, and the knowledge the world has of American culture and norms through film and entertainment.

The problem with French provisional isolationism, on the other hand, is that it overestimates the benefits that the French would maintain in a world without the European Union. A major task ahead for Macron is to convey to a deeply skeptical populace the value of the EU for France.

Both Macron and Le Pen ended their speeches Sunday night with proud renditions of La Marseillaise. On the president’s dais was an opera singer; at Le Pen’s rally, she led the singing at first, then stepped away from the mic to let her supporters continue the song. It’s easy to read into the symbolism—Macron the technocrat going with a professional; Le Pen, with her “power to the people” pose, going to the crowd. We’ll see in June just how firm is France’s endorsement of the former and rejection of the latter.

Matthew C. Rees

Matthew C. Rees is a writer, translator, and educator living in Osnabrück, Germany.