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


Emmanuel Bichot, a center-right city councilor, speaks with his friend and local businessman in Dijon, France, on Friday, April 8, 2022.

By Roger Cohen


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


With 92% of the ballots cast Sunday counted, Macron, a centrist, was leading with 27.4% of the vote to Le Pen’s 24.3%. Le Pen benefited from a late surge that reflected widespread disaffection over rising prices, security and immigration.


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


An anti-NATO and more pro-Russia France in the event of an ultimate Le Pen victory would cause deep concern in allied capitals, and could fracture the united trans-Atlantic response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


But Macron, after a lackluster campaign, will go into the second round as the slight favorite, having fared a little better than the latest opinion polls suggested. Some had shown him leading Le Pen by just 2 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 packaging, if not her fierce conviction that French people must be privileged over foreigners and that the curtain must be drawn on France as a “land of immigration.”


Le Pen’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin are close, although she has scrambled in recent weeks to play them down. 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 France to order in five years,” Le Pen declared to cheering supporters, appealing to all French people to join her in what she called “a choice of civilization” in which the “legitimate preponderance of French language and culture” would be guaranteed and full “sovereignty reestablished in all domains.”


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


Macron told flag-waving supporters: “I want a France in a strong Europe that maintains its alliances with the big democracies in order to defend itself, not a France that, outside Europe, would have as its only allies the populist and xenophobic International. That is not us.”


He added: “Don’t deceive ourselves, 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 in the daily Le Parisien newspaper, Macron called Le Pen “a racist” of “great brutality.” Le Pen hit back, saying Macron’s remarks were “outrageous and aggressive.” She called favoring French people over foreigners “the only moral, legal and admissible policy.”


The gloves will be off as they confront each other over the future of France, at a time when Britain’s exit from the European Union and the end of Angela Merkel’s long chancellorship in Germany have placed a particular onus on French leadership.


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


The runoff will be a repeat of the last election, in 2017, when Macron, then a relative newcomer to politics intent on shattering old divisions between left and right, trounced Le Pen with 66.9% of the vote to her 33.1%.


The final result this time will almost certainly be much closer than five years ago. Polls taken before Sunday’s vote indicated Macron winning by just 52% to 48% against Le Pen in the second round. That could shift in the coming two weeks, when the candidates will debate for the first time in the campaign.


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


Le Pen, who leads the National Rally, 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 anti-immigrant provocation, which made her look more mainstream and innocuous. In the end, Zemmour’s campaign faded, and he took about 7% of the vote.


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


The threatening scenario for Macron is that Zemmour’s vote will go to Le Pen and that she will be further bolstered by the wide section of the left that feels betrayed or just viscerally hostile toward Macron, as well as by some center-right voters for whom immigration is the core issue.


More than half of French people — supporters of Le Pen, Zemmour and Mélenchon — now appear to favor parties that are broadly anti-NATO, anti-American and hostile to the EU. By contrast, the broad center — Macron’s La République en Marche party, the Socialist Party, the center-right Republicans and the Green Party — took a combined total of about 40%.


The abstention rate Sunday, between about 26% and 28%, was several points above the last election. Not since 2002 has it been so high.


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

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