In the 2017 second-round contest for president of France between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, a record number of registered voters, 33.4%, either cast a blank ballot or simply stayed home, a strong sign of protest even for a country accustomed to dissent.
Five years later, the same play is still running and French voters aren’t much more enthusiastic about the leads, with 32.6% of voters on Sunday either casting a ballot blanc or abstaining in the rematch of Macron vs. Le Pen.
France remains deeply divided, especially between wealthy areas near large population centers and the poorer rural areas and small towns. The currents that gave rise to the Yellow Vest protests, particularly strident three years ago, have not run their course. For many voters, President Macron today is as out of touch as when he proposed “green taxes” on fuel to help the nation meet its carbon-reduction pledges under the Paris climate accords, with little regard for whether many French citizens could afford to pay them.
Macron may have won a second five-year term as president, but his victory is marred by the continued antipathy and strong protest vote, and by Le Pen’s gains. Her National Rally party received 5 million more votes Sunday than in 2017 (it was then the National Front), and she narrowed her loss from a lopsided 66%-33% five years ago to 58.5%-41.5%.
A More Centrist Le Pen
Le Pen has sought to position National Rally closer to the mainstream of French politics, moderating some of her past positions. For instance, the platform in 2017 called for leaving NATO, but this year it called only for a French withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command and remaining in the alliance. In this task of transformation, she benefited from the presence of candidates such as Éric Zemmour, who ran on a platform to her right and made National Rally seem more centrist in comparison. She also campaigned hard on everyday issues such as inflation and unemployment, areas where the government is weak and voters understandably upset.
Still, while Le Pen improved her electoral performance, history seems to point to a ceiling of support for National Rally below what is needed to win a second-round contest. Certainly, Le Pen’s admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin did not help her campaign. With the candidates’ stance on Russia, voters drew a distinction between appeasement in the case of Le Pen and foolishness in the case of Macron. Le Pen’s calls for a “strategic rapprochement” with Putin looked uglier with each new atrocity in Ukraine.
For his part, Macron’s endless engagement with the Russian autocrat has produced no results. Macron was certainly duped when on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he announced to the world that Putin had given him “personal assurances” there would be no further escalation in Ukraine. It was a Chamberlainesque performance, and it certainly diminished France’s standing.
Committed to NATO
Still, for all his efforts to mount an independent European Union military capability, which would undermine NATO, France under Macron remains an active and capable NATO member. France continues to commit troops to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence battalions in the Baltics, and the French are leading a new unit in Romania. France’s fighter jets have been policing the skies over the Baltics and Poland, and its Carrier Strike Group recently sailed the eastern Mediterranean in a show of force. France has been sending weapons to Ukraine, and very soon Caesar self-propelled howitzers. It is hard to imagine France under a President Le Pen taking similar actions.
Macron won in large part due to support from older voters, as well as from voters who backed far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round but broke heavily for Macron’s En Marche! in round two. His campaign borrowed from the themes of many of the leftist candidates but was also accused of similar thievery by the mainstream conservative Les Républicains, whose standard bearer, Valérie Pécresse, accused En Marche! of “plundering” the Republicans’ platform. It seems to have worked: Support for Les Républicains, who controlled the Élysée Palace just a decade ago, collapsed in this year’s first round.
Macron will surely remain unpopular. A poor showing in June’s legislative elections would complicate his program further, potentially even leading to the naming of a prime minister outside his party. He is also in for a bruising battle in his renewed push for delaying France’s retirement age from 62 to 65 as he kicks off his second term.
An Unchanged Agenda
The fundamentals of Macron’s second term will remain the same: a sustained push for further EU integration (he sees a window of opportunity to take the EU leadership ring from Germany); an antagonistic approach toward Brexit Britain, including the continued pushing of migrants toward U.K. waters; and a wrangling with Islamic radicalism, which he has sought to tackle and which will remain both a security liability and a political flashpoint in France. France’s recent withdrawal from Mali and continued NATO efforts to deter Putin may dampen Macron’s push for an independent EU military force, but his advocacy for it, especially long term, will remain.
Internally, France will remain deeply divided. I doubt very much the newly reelected president has the popularity, vision or wherewithal to bridge the divide and address the challenges faced by many of his countrymen. Macron has been reelected, but for most French citizens, celebrations are muted after the lukewarm feelings for the second-round candidates. With expectations for a second Macron term tepid at best, French voters appear in a tempestuous mood.