Macron to face Le Pen for president as French people gravitate to extremes

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

With 92% of the vote cast on Sunday, Mr. Macron, a centrist, was in the lead with around 27.4% of the vote against 24.3% for Ms. Le Pen. Ms Le Pen benefited from a late surge that reflected widespread disaffection with rising prices, security and immigration.

As war rages in Ukraine and Western unity risks being tested as the fighting continues, Ms Le Pen’s strong performance has demonstrated the enduring appeal of nationalist and xenophobic currents in Europe . The extreme right and left parties won some 51% 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 Le Pen’s ultimate victory would cause deep concern in Allied capitals and could shatter the united transatlantic response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But Mr Macron, after a lackluster campaign, will go into the second round as a slight favourite, having fared slightly better than the latest opinion polls suggested. Some had shown it in front of Ms. Le Pen by only two points.

The principled French rejection of Ms Le Pen’s brand of anti-immigrant nationalism unraveled as the illiberal policy spread across Europe and the United States. She succeeded in softening her packaging, 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 Russian President Vladimir V. Putin are close, though she has been quick in recent weeks to downplay them. This month, she was quick to congratulate Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist and anti-immigrant leader, on his fourth consecutive victory in the parliamentary elections.

“I will restore France in five years,” Ms. Le Pen told cheering supporters, calling on all French people to join her in what she called “a choice of civilisation” in which the “legitimate preponderance of language and French culture” would be guaranteed and full “sovereignty restored in all areas”.

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

Mr Macron told flag-waving supporters: ‘I want a France in a strong Europe that maintains its alliances with the major democracies to defend itself, not a France that, outside of Europe, has populists and the only allies xenophobes”. International. It’s not us.

He added: “Let’s face it, nothing is decided, and the debate we will have in the next 15 days is decisive for our country and for Europe.

Last week, in an interview with the daily Le Parisien, Mr Macron called Ms Le Pen a “racist” of “great brutality”. Ms Le Pen hit back, saying the president’s remarks were “scandalous and aggressive”. She called favoring the French over foreigners “the only moral, legal and admissible policy”.

The gloves will be removed as they clash over France’s future, at a time when Britain’s exit from the European Union and the end of Angela Merkel’s long chancellorship in Germany have imposed a particular burden on the French leadership.

Mr 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, a Hungarian bank, has other priorities.

The run-off on April 24 will be a repeat of the last election, in 2017, when Mr Macron, then a political newcomer determined to break down old divisions between left and right, beat Ms Le Pen with 66 .9% of the votes. vote for her 33.1 percent.

The end result this time will almost certainly be much closer than five years ago. Polls taken ahead of Sunday’s vote indicated that Mr Macron had won by just 52% to 48% against Ms Le Pen in the second round. That could change in the next two weeks, when the candidates debate the campaign for the first time.

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

Ms. Le Pen, who leads the National Rally, formerly the National Front, was aided by the candidacy of Éric Zemmour, a fiercely xenophobic television pundit turned politician, who has become the go-to politician for anti- immigrants, which made it seem more common and harmless. In the end, Mr. Zemmour’s campaign fizzled out and he got around 7% of the vote.

Mr. Zemmour immediately called on his supporters to support Ms. Le Pen in the second round. “Across from Madame Le Pen, there is a man who allowed 2 million immigrants to enter France,” said Mr. Zemmour.

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

More than half of French people – supporters of Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Zemmour and Mr. Mélenchon – now seem to favor parties that are largely anti-NATO, anti-American and hostile to the European Union. In contrast, the big center – Mr Macron’s La République en Marche party, the Socialist Party, the centre-right Republicans and the Green Party – secured a combined total of around 40%.

These are figures that reveal the extent of concern in France, and perhaps also the extent of distrust of its democracy. They will be more comforting to Ms Le Pen than to Mr Macron, although Mr Mélenchon has said his supporters should not give Ms Le Pen “one vote”.

He, however, refused to endorse Mr Macron.

At Ms. Le Pen’s headquarters, Frédéric Sarmiento, an activist, said: “She will benefit from a big transfer of votes”, pointing the finger at supporters of Mr. Zemmour, but also some on the left who, according to polls, will support 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 Sciences Po. “Many on the left will abstain rather than vote Macron.”

Mr Macron won immediate support for the run-off from defeated Socialist, Communist, Green and centre-right candidates, but between them they accounted for no more than 15% of the vote in the first round. He could also benefit from a late surge of support for the Republic in a country that has had a bitter wartime experience of far-right rule.

In the end, Sunday’s election ended with Mr Macron against the far right and far left of the political spectrum, a sign of his effective dismantling of the old political order. Today essentially built around a personality – the worrying president – French democracy does not seem to have resulted in a lasting alternative structure.

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

On the place of Islam in France, on immigration controls and on police powers, Mr. Macron adopted a hard line, judging that the election would be won or lost on his right.

Addressing his supporters after Sunday’s vote, he said he wanted a France that ‘resolutely fights against Islamist separatism’ – a term he uses to describe conservative or radical Muslims who reject French values ​​like equality gender – but also a France that allows all believers to practice their religion.

His right turn came at a cost. The centre-left, once the core of his support, felt betrayed. How far the left will vote for him in the second round will be a major source of concern, as Mr Macron’s recent anthems of brutal catch-up to “fraternity”, to ” solidarity” and equal opportunities.

Throughout the campaign, Mr Macron appeared disengaged, burdened by countless phone calls to Mr Putin that proved ineffective.

A comfortable lead in the polls has vanished in recent weeks as resentment has grown over the president’s detachment. He had struggled for the five years of his presidency to overcome an image of estrangement, learning to reach out to more people, only to suffer an apparent relapse in recent weeks.

Yet Mr Macron has steered the country through the long coronavirus crisis, brought unemployment down to a decade low and revived 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 be the first female president of France, is also seen differently. Now in her third bid to become president – Jacques Chirac won in 2002 after two failures – she has bowed to reason (and popular opinion) on two important fronts: abandoning her earlier wishes to take France out of the European Union and the Eurozone. Yet many of his proposals — such as barring EU citizens from some of the same social benefits as French citizens — would breach core EU treaties.

The leader of the National Rally, ex-National Front, has softened her language to seem more “presidential”. She smiled a lot, opened up about her personal struggles and gave the impression of being closer to the day-to-day concerns of the French, especially with regard to the sharp rise in the price of gasoline and inflation.

But a lot of things haven’t changed. Its program includes a project to organize a referendum which would lead to a modification of the Constitution prohibiting any policy leading to “the installation on the national territory of such a large number of foreigners that it would modify the composition and the identity of France”. people.”

She also wants to ban Muslim women from wearing a headscarf and fine them if they do.

The abstention rate on Sunday, between around 26 and 28%, was several points higher than the last election. Never since 2002 had it been so high.

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

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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