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Emmanuel Macron re-elected president, vows to unite France despite far-right gains

French President Emmanuel Macron comfortably won re-election to a second term Sunday, triggering waves of relief among allies that the nuclear-armed European Union nation won’t abruptly shift course from EU and NATO efforts to punish and contain Russia’s expansionist military attacks on Ukraine.

The second five-year term for the 44-year-old centrist spared France and Europe from the seismic upheaval of a shift of power to firebrand populist Marine Le Pen, Macron’s presidential election challenger, who quickly conceded defeat but still scored her best-ever showing.

Acknowledging that “numerous” voters cast ballots for him simply to keep out Le Pen’s fiercely nationalist far-right policies, Macron pledged to reunite the country “filled with so many doubts, so many divisions” and work to assuage the voter anger that fed Le Pen’s campaign.

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“No one will be left by the side of the road,” he said in a victory speech against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower and a projection of the blue-white-and-red tricolour French flag.

“We have a lot to do and the war in Ukraine reminds us that we are going through tragic times where France must make its voice heard,” he said, as several hundred supporters happily waved French and EU flags to the beat of Daft Punk’s One More Time.

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Macron supporters react at the Champ de Mars in Paris on Sunday. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

During her campaign, Le Pen pledged to dilute French ties with the 27-nation EU, the NATO military alliance and Germany — which, had she won, would have shaken Europe’s security architecture as the continent deals with its worst conflict since the Second World War. Le Pen also spoke out against sanctions on Russian energy supplies and faced scrutiny during the election campaign over her previous friendliness with the Kremlin.

A chorus of European leaders hailed Macron’s victory. “Democracy wins, Europe wins,” said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

“Together we will make France and Europe advance,” tweeted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi hailed Macron’s victory as “splendid news for all of Europe” and a boost to the EU “being a protagonist in the greatest challenges of our times, starting with the war in Ukraine.”

Le Pen makes gains

Macron won with 58.5 per cent of the vote to Le Pen’s 41.5 per cent — significantly closer than when they first faced off in 2017.

Macron is the first French president in 20 years to win re-election, since incumbent Jacques Chirac trounced Le Pen’s father in 2002.

Le Pen called her result “a shining victory,” saying that “in this defeat, I can’t help but feel a form of hope.”

Breaking through the threshold of 40 per cent or more of the vote is unprecedented for the French far-right. Le Pen was beaten 66 per cent to 34 per cent by Macron in 2017. And her father got less than 20 per cent against Chirac.

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Far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen leaves a polling booth in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, on Sunday. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

She and hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who placed third in the first round of voting on April 10 and was among 10 presidential candidates eliminated that day, both quickly pitched forward to France’s legislative election in June, urging voters to give them a parliamentary majority to hamstring Macron.

Le Pen’s score this time rewarded her year-long efforts to make her far-right politics more palatable to voters. Campaigning hard on cost-of-living issues, she made deep inroads among blue-collar voters, in disaffected rural communities and former industrial centres.

‘Least worst choice’

The drop in support for Macron compared to five years ago points to what is expected to be a tough battle for the president to rally people behind him in his second term. Many French voters found the 2022 rematch less compelling than in 2017, when Macron was an unknown factor, having never previously held elected office.

Leftist voters — unable to identify with either the centrist president or Le Pen’s fiercely nationalist platform — often agonized with the choices Sunday. Some trooped reluctantly to polling stations solely to stop Le Pen, casting joyless votes for Macron.

“It was the least worst choice,” said Stephanie David, a transport logistics worker who backed a communist candidate in round one.

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A polling station is seen in Lyon, central France, on Sunday. (Laurent Cipriani/The Associated Press)

It was an impossible choice for retiree Jean-Pierre Roux. Having also voted communist in round one, he dropped an empty envelope into the ballot box on Sunday, repelled both by Le Pen’s politics and what he saw as Macron’s arrogance.

“I am not against his ideas but I cannot stand the person,” Roux said.

In contrast, Marian Arbre, voting in Paris, cast his ballot for Macron “to avoid a government that finds itself with fascists, racists.”

“There’s a real risk,” the 29-year-old fretted.

Macron went into the vote with a sizeable lead in polls but unable to be sure of victory from a fractured, anxious and tired electorate. The war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic battered Macron’s first term, as did months of violent protests against his economic policies. The upheavals created fertile ground for Le Pen.

With the EU’s only seat on the UN Security Council and only nuclear arsenal, the outcome in France was being watched across the 27-nation bloc as it grapples with the fallout of the Ukraine war.

Appealing to working-class voters struggling with surging prices, Le Pen has vowed that bringing down the cost of living would be her priority if elected. She argued that Macron’s presidency left the country deeply divided, pointing to the yellow vest protest movement that rocked his government before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Macron sought to appeal to voters of immigrant heritage and religious minorities, especially because of Le Pen’s proposed policies targeting Muslims and putting French citizens first in line for jobs and benefits. He also touted his environmental and climate accomplishments, hoping to draw in young voters who backed left-wing candidates in round one.

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