French President Emmanuel Macron won a second five-year term on Sunday, triumphing over far-right challenger Marine Le Pen and becoming the first French president since 2002 to be reelected. Macron beat LePen by a 17-point margin, though over a quarter of voters abstained from voting and Macron’s victory was much narrower than in 2017 — pointing to growing support in recent years for Le Pen’s openly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim platform. “The 17 percentage point margin of Macron isn’t really as comfortable of a margin as it looks,” says Paris-based journalist Cole Stangler, citing a “tremendous amount of dissatisfaction” among working-class immigrant voters. “Some people, frankly, are struggling to see the difference between Macron and Le Pen,” continues Stangler, who says Macron has enacted a “very right-wing policy program.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We begin today’s show in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has won a second five-year term, triumphing over far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, who conceded defeat Sunday. Macron is the first president — French president since 2002 to be reelected. He won some 58% of the vote, while Le Pen garnered about 42%. Macron’s victory was much narrower than in 2017, when he beat Le Pen with over 66% of the vote, pointing to the growing support in recent years for Le Pen’s openly anti-immigrant and Islamophobic platform, as well as disappointment over Macron’s centrist, neoliberal agenda and his own backing of harsh anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies. In his victory address Sunday, Macron vowed to reach out to supporters of Le Pen.
PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: [translated] After five years of transformation, both happy and difficult, and exceptional crisis, on this date, April 24th, 2022, a majority of us have chosen to trust me to lead our republic for the next five years. … I also think of all of our compatriots who abstained from voting. Their silence signifies the refusal to choose, to which we must also respond. Finally, I think of those who voted for Madame Le Pen, who I know is disappointed this evening. No, don’t boo anyone. From the beginning, I asked you never to boo. … Because I am no longer the candidate of a party, but the president of everyone. … I know that for many of our compatriots who chose the extreme right today, their anger and disagreements, which led them to vote for this project, must also find a response. And that will be my responsibility and that of those around me.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as more than a quarter of French voters abstained, with many saying they opposed both candidates. This was Le Pen’s third attempt at the presidency. She said Sunday’s results were evidence of dissatisfaction with Macron.
MARINE LE PEN: [translated] A great breeze of liberty could have arisen in the country. The results of the vote, which I respect, wanted otherwise. Despite two weeks of disloyal, brutal and violent methods, similar to what the French are suffering every day, the ideas that we represent is reaching its peak on the night of the second round of the presidential election. With more than 43% of the votes, tonight’s results represent, in itself, a shining victory. … The French are showing tonight a wish for a strong counterpower against that of Emmanuel Macron, for an opposition that will continue to defend and protect them in the face of the degradation of the purchasing power, attacks on liberty, putting into question our public service and our social system, Emmanuel Macron’s proposition to push the retirement age, insecurity, an anarchic immigration and the laxity of the courts.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the French presidential election, we’re joined in Paris by journalist Cole Stangler.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Cole. Can you start off by just reacting to the reelection of Macron, but the increasing number of votes that Le Pen has gotten over the years, this her third defeat?
COLE STANGLER: Absolutely. So, if you look at sort of the numbers, you know, 17 percentage points seems like a pretty comfortable margin of victory. And people were talking about maybe this election in France looking something like the Brexit vote, like the Trump vote in 2016. It clearly wasn’t the case. But if you kind of look beneath the surface, the 17 percentage point margin of Macron isn’t really as comfortable of a margin as it looks.
For one, as we were talking about, as you were mentioning, the far right is on the march here in France, both in terms of the brute electoral numbers they’re getting in elections — if you compare the vote that Le Pen got yesterday with 2017, Macron’s margin of victory was cut in half: It was 10 million votes in 2017, it’s now with 5 million votes. They’re progressing electorally. They’re also progressing in the sort of broader battle of ideas. If you tune in to the media in France, far-right ideas are dominating, tend to dominate the public debate, you know, where we’re talking all the time about immigration, about Islamism, about insecurity. So the far right is clearly on the advance here, and I think that’s one of the big takeaways. You have 41% of the French population that went out and voted for somebody who wants to cut off housing, cut off social housing for immigrants, for foreigners, wants to have the de facto discrimination against foreigners when they’re applying for jobs, wants to ban the Islamic headscarf in public space, deport undocumented immigrants. So, the far right is advancing. I think that’s one important thing to take into account.
The other factor, as you were mentioning, is the low turnout. I mean, about 72% of the French electorate registered to vote turned out in this election. That’s fairly high for American standards, but in the French context, it’s very low. You have to go back to 1969 to find a participation level that was that low. Again, in ’69, that was a matchup between two right-wing candidates, as well, with no left-wing candidate.
And even beyond the participation numbers, you also had people showing up at the polls, around 9%, who cast what are known as either blank ballots, so putting in blank pieces of paper into the envelopes that are then going into the voting box, or casting spoiled ballots, so crossing out names, writing someone else’s name. Nine percent of people did spoiled ballots or blank ballots. And that’s a really high number, as well.
So, you have a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction. So, at the end of the day, Macron’s, quote-unquote, “republican front” is holding, so this is the idea that people unite to vote against the far right, but there are clearly some signs of weakness. The far right is progressing, and the low turnout speaks to sort of a lack of interest, ultimately, in this election among a big chunk of the electorate.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about the sociology professor Daniel Zamora Vargas in France, who has argued President Macron is not a centrist, writing on a Twitter thread Macron was, quote, “the most right wing president of the 5th Republic. He created the conditions for the extreme right to be able to win the presidential election.” Professor Vargas highlighted Macron’s own support for anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies, saying Macron “legitimated all the topics of the extreme right,” adding French people were forced to, quote, “vote for Le Pen or vote for what created a favourable environment for Le Pen’s ideas. It’s a choice between an evil and the cause of that evil,” said Vargas. His comments came after the first French presidential elections round of votes earlier in April.
COLE STANGLER: Yeah, you know, there’s an expression in French that often was applied to this election, which is, it’s hard to choose between the plague or cholera. It’s a French expression, and you heard it a lot going into the second round, having to choose between these two candidates. And if you look at the breakdown of Macron’s support, around 40% of people who voted for Macron said that they voted for him to deny the presidency to Marine Le Pen. So that’s a big chunk of voters that don’t necessarily agree with his agenda.
And in terms of his actual policies, again, in the French context, I think it’s fair to say that he has a very right-wing policy program that he’s put into place. If you look at the repeal of the wealth tax, that used to apply to people with 1.3 million euros in assets, Macron did that in his very first budget as president, repealed the wealth tax; put into place labor reforms to make it easier to lay off workers; recently embarked on reforms to the unemployment insurance system which make it harder to have unemployment benefits. He’s now talking about raising the retirement age to 65. So, all these economic policies clearly put him in the right-wing camp, I think, in France. I think people call him a centrist. It’s probably more accurate to say center-right or, frankly, right-wing at this point. So, on the socioeconomic — you know, these policies, clearly right-wing.
And then, as you mentioned, as well, I mean, if you look at his policies around immigration, around policing issues, this is clearly someone who has moved to the right and — you know, his law on immigration that makes it easier to deport undocumented immigrants. We saw his law against Islamic separatism, that a lot of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, denounced as going too far.
We’ve also seen some of his government ministers — not necessarily Macron himself but Cabinet members — go out and engage in sort of American-style culture wars, talking about wokeness, talking about the supposed threat of Islamo-leftists in the university system, all this really bent on — you know, meant to sort of play to a right-wing audience and really set the contours of the debate, you know, clearly, clearly, on the right wing.
And this gets back to why you had such high abstention, such low turnout in France, especially in the sort of working-class immigrant communities that would be the most affected, arguably, by Le Pen coming to power. If you look at just the suburbs outside of Paris, so poor — relatively poor, immigrant, working-class communities, very, very low turnout. And if you’re in the Macron camp, I think you should be wondering: How is it that you can’t get people like this to go out and vote against Le Pen? And it’s because people — many people don’t feel motivated, and some people, frankly, are struggling to see the difference between Macron and Le Pen. Clearly, you know, French people voted. They decided to pick Macron over Le Pen. But you have an increasing swath of the electorate that is essentially saying, you know, “I’m not so sure the differences are that meaningful to warrant going out and voting for Macron.” Again, I want to be careful, because, clearly, he did get that support, but the sort of line, the sort of division that we’ve seen in the past between the center and the right and then the far right, is really starting to fray, and I’m not sure how much longer it’s going to be able to hold.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, what role did this election taking place during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine play? I mean, you have The New York Times writing, “Unable to get a loan” — I mean, there was that famous ad of Macron’s where he rhymes Le Pen’s name with “Putin,” and The New York Times writing, “Unable to get a loan from French banks, Ms. Le Pen and several of her top aides scrambled for cash in Russia, accepting a 9.4 million euro loan, then $12.2 million, at a 6 percent interest rate, from the First Czech-Russian Bank in September 2014. It was supposed to be repaid by 2019.” And it hasn’t been.
COLE STANGLER: Yeah, I mean, absolutely horrible timing for Marine Le Pen. This is somebody who owes nine — or, excuse me, hasn’t finished paying back a 9 million euro loan to a Russian bank in the midst of this authoritarian — increasingly authoritarian drift in Russia, in the midst of this horrible, brutal war that they’ve launched against Ukraine. And so, Marine Le Pen has to somehow downplay her ties, that, I should say, again, are not — you know, this isn’t speculation. There are financial ties linking Marine Le Pen and the far right to the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin. And the bank that she took a loan from is very close to the regime. And so this is horrible optics for Le Pen. She even had to edit out a National Front flyer that had her photograph shaking the hand of Vladimir Putin in 2017. And that issue really emerged during the one debate that we saw between the two rounds in which Macron, you know, understandably, went on the offensive about this issue, painting her as someone who is an apologist for Putin and actually owes money to Putin — and, you know, not so far-fetched of an argument, frankly.
And it should be said, as well, I mean, Marine Le Pen and the National Rally have looked to Russia and looked to Putin as a sort of model leader, someone who’s a strong leader, who defends his country and his people. And it should be said this time around, in 2022, the National Rally party actually went to Hungary to get their loan this time to finance the party, because they’re struggling to get support in France, as you mentioned. So they took out a loan from Hungary, and Viktor Orbán is another sort of model, a point of reference, for Marine Le Pen and her party. And so, clearly, that factored into the election. It wasn’t [inaudible] important issue. The issue — the election really centered around what the French call pouvoir d’achat, purchasing power, cost of living, sort of bread-and-butter economic concerns. But certainly that issue came up in the debate, and it obviously did not help Marine Le Pen.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, finally, the role of the far-right candidate, Éric Zemmour, and the left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came in third in the previous runoff — in the previous original election?
COLE STANGLER: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that right now French politics is essentially split into three blocs. You have the Macronist center-right, neoliberal, pro-business bloc, that’s won the presidency. You have a far-right bloc that is made up of Marine Le Pen, who is relatively more popular than Éric Zemmour, who’s even more to the right of Le Pen. So you have this sort of far-right populist bloc. And then you have the left bloc, left populist, left-wing bloc, represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
I think this is where things could get really interesting as we look toward the legislative elections. So, rather than speculate about whether or not Macron might take into account left-wing voters this time or not, rather than speculate about his words, about the language he uses, what really counts are these legislative elections that are coming up in June, in which the left, you know, for the first time in years, seems to be uniting, coalescing around a common program. We’ll see how that pans out. But if they do that, there’s a real chance to have a left-wing parliamentary majority, that could then potentially block Macron from passing a lot of his laws and really have a significant impact over his next five-year term. And for that matter, you know, there’s the risk also of the right coalescing and gaining support, as well. So, a very volatile situation that is really masked by the margin of victory, which seems big, but if you kind of scratch beneath the surface, we’re in a very volatile situation. And the left, people counted out for years, finally seems to be coalescing, and I think that’s going to be something to look out for when these legislative elections come up in June.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Cole Stangler, I want to thank you for being with us, Paris-based journalist, writes for The Nation and Jacobin. We’ll link to your articles.