In the contest for the French Presidency, Emmanuel Macron has secured victory over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. With 58.5% of the vote in the second round of the election on Sunday, Macron is the first incumbent president to hold office since Jacques Chirac in 2002.

But there is no time for celebration for Macron or for France. The path ahead is shrouded in uncertainty. The far-right’s gains and the low turnout reflect a growing climate of political dissatisfaction with Macron and his policy record. June’s Parliamentary elections will be critical to determine the political future — both for him and for France.

The Far Right’s Slow, Steady Climb

Macron won his first term by a comfortable margin, securing 66% of the votes to defeat the same Le Pen in the 2017 run-off. The gap shrunk considerably in the second round of the 2022 election.

With 41.5% of the vote, the Rassemblement National claims a historic result. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and founder of the Front National, only claimed 18% in the first appearance of a far-right candidate in the second round of the Presidential election. In 2017 Marine Le Pen, head of the renamed Rassemblement National, secured 34%.

So the younger Le Pen has reached another milestone in her campaign of “normalization. In her concession speech on Sunday evening, Le Pen proclaimed “a resounding victory”, “a historic score”, and the “testimony of the French people’s great defiance against the leaders of France and Europe”.

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The Rassemblement National emerges from this election with a new legitimacy on the right flank of the French political scene. The rise of Éric Zemmour as the most extreme far-right candidate ended up benefiting Le Pen, as her policies and image appeared more moderate in comparison – despite remaining mostly unchanged in substance.

The implosion of the traditional mainstream conservative party Les Républicains was another political turn of events playing into Le Pen’s hands. The party has been crippled by internal dissent over its course, with members torn between a more centrist approach which would challenge Macron on his own terrain or a move further to the right. Its candidate Valérie Pécresse only received a meager 4.8% in the first round, the party’s worst ever result and a sharp decline in comparison to the 20% won in 2017.

Although Pécresse announced that she would vote for Macron, her party’s political bureau did not call on its supporters to do the same. In a political balancing act, it adopted a motion which stated that “not a single vote could go to Marine Le Pen”.

Dissatisfaction and the “Republican Front”

Macron’s victory was also overshadowed by low turnout. The abstention rate in the 2022 run-off reached 28%, continuing on its upward trajectory from 25% in 2017 and 20% in 2012.

These numbers are symptomatic of a growing dissatisfaction with France’s political leaders and also with the alternatives at hand. In an April poll by IFOP/Le Journal du Dimanche, Macron’s approval rating stood at only 41%.

Many voters — particularly on the left and far-left — lamented the choice between an incumbent president whose social and economic policy record they did not support and a far-right candidate whose xenophobic and nationalist views they abhorred. Policy concerns, especially over dwindling purchasing power and Macron’s unpopular plan to raise the retirement age, were sidelined in a second round where the priority of a large part of the electorate was to stop Marine Le Pen from moving into the Élysée Palace.

So the election’s significance was Le Pen’s defeat by the “republican front”: the traditional anti-far right coalition in which unsuccessful candidates from the first round rally behind their former rival facing the far-right challenger. The candidates of the socialist, communist, center-right, and green parties all expressed their intention to vote for Macron in the run-off. So did the previous two Presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing candidate who finished third in the first round with 22%, struck a similar note to that of Les Républicains. Although not openly endorsing Macron prior to Sunday’s second round, he stressed that not a single vote should go to Le Pen.

Unsurprisingly, Le Pen received the support of fellow far-right candidate Éric Zemmour and of the sovereigntist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who had already endorsed her in the 2017 run-off. The future of this anti-far right coalition will be an important talking point in elections to come — beginning with June’s Parliamentary ballot.

The Winner Takes It All: The 3rd Round of the Elections

With the question of the Presidency settled, candidates and parties have turned their attention to June’s contest.

Under the French Constitution, the President is only as strong as the support he receives from Parliament. So some of the candidates defeated in the first round two weeks ago have already begun another round of campaigning. In a televised interview last Tuesday, far-left leader Mélenchon — whose party currently has 17 of the National Assembly’s 577 seats — called on voters to “elect him Prime Minister”.

Despite Le Pen’s second-round presence in the 2017 Presidential election, the Rassemblement National only claimed eight constituencies in the subsequent Parliamentary elections, as the “republican front” rallied against it. Hoping to prevent a repeat, Le Pen’s concession speech launched “the great battle of the Parliamentary elections” with a call on those opposing Macron’s policies to support her party’s candidates.

Macron hopes to carry the momentum of his victory into June to secure a Parliamentary majority — La République En Marche! currently holds 346 seats — for another term. That task will be arduous, amid the fading of hopes from 2017 for a movement promising political renewal, radical reforms, and a break with the mainstream parties. Now Macron and En Marche are no longer the newcomers and have to defend a checkered record.

Both traditional mainstream parties, Les Républicains and the Socialist Party, are still strongly represented at local level even if they are in a national state of disarray. Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National will attempt to outflank them on both sides of the hemicycle. Whether candidates of Zemmour’s Reconquête! and of the Rassemblement National will compete against each other and split the far-right electorate is still an open question.

In this context of rising extremes — both on the left and the right — challenging Macron, the Parliamentary election is bound to redraw the French political map. It will also present another crucial challenge to the President’s leadership.

In front of the Eiffel Tower last night, Macron presented himself as the President of all. That is his illusion — in reality, he is at the head of a deeply divided and dissatisfied nation.