TROYES, France — The relief among Western leaders at the re-election of French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday night was almost palpable.
But the size of the vote for far-right leader Marine Le Pen shows a significant groundswell of support for her nationalist policies and signals a bigger fight ahead for the politics of France and Europe.
Already grappling with a war in Ukraine, spiraling energy costs and the climate crisis, France’s partners will not have to deal with Le Pen, a far-right politician who rails against the European Union and has a long history of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, as president.
President Joe Biden congratulated Macron, calling France “our oldest ally and a key partner in addressing global challenges,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy cheered the victory of “a true friend of Ukraine,” and a long list of other European leaders offered similar messages.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, seemed to sum up the mood in a tweet: “In this turbulent period, we need a solid Europe."
At Macron's victory speech on Sunday, with the Eiffel Tower in the background, his supporters waved E.U. and French flags alike — the president’s re-election being welcomed as an endorsement of a much grander project that has been challenged by Putin’s military adventurism abroad and domestic politicians on both extremes. That mantle has been taken up by Le Pen in France — and with 13 million votes, the most for a far-right candidate in French history, many in the country agree with her.
“Le Pen voters aren’t going anywhere. There is support for her politics and what she stands for, and it’s not just a protest vote from people who don’t like Macron — people agree with her program, if not all of it, and find it appealing,” said Marta Lorimer, an expert in far-right European politics at the London School of Economics.
The question for the French far-right is whether its rival offshoots — including the movement behind Eric Zemmour, who launched a failed bid to beat Le Pen in the election’s first round — can agree on working together to mount an electoral challenge, Lorimer said.
Polls have shown that Macron won thanks to what French political commentators call “beavers” — voters who voted for Macron to build a dam against a Le Pen victory, not because they believe in his platform. As Macron put it, “Many of our compatriots voted for me not out of support for my ideas but to block those of the extreme right.”
This reluctance could come back to bite Macron in the crucial parliamentary elections in June, which he needs to win to be sure of pushing through an agenda that includes a hugely unpopular pension reform proposal.
Ines Larche, 34, from Paris, told NBC news that she voted for the Green Party in the first round but then, reluctantly, went for Macron on Sunday.
“I was tempted not to because I am very disappointed with his policies,” she said, but Le Pen “is super dangerous.”
“She doesn’t care about contracts or treaties. She is just a populist and she is dangerous. I voted for a continuation of the situation, but I will definitely vote for the left in the parliamentary elections.”
For Macron and the rest of the moderate West, the challenge is to balance denouncing far-right xenophobia while taking seriously a huge portion of the electorate and not demonizing them, Lorimer said.
“Mainstream politicians in most mainstream European countries are going to have to ask themselves what is the best way to deal with this that does not involve becoming like them, to appeal to these voters,” she added.
Le Pen claimed in a speech accepting the election result that her performance was still a victory and that her ideas — which included a ban on Muslim face and head coverings in public — had reached the “summit” of French politics.
But the gains of the far-right should not be overestimated, experts cautioned.
“Le Pen got 27 percent of the registered vote — it’s very concerning and far too much for a healthy democracy, but I think we need to stress that 3 out of 4 voters did not choose her,” said Aurelien Mondon, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Bath in England.
For Mondon, Le Pen’s result shows the far-right may have reached a “glass ceiling” in French politics — one that she couldn’t get past despite favorable economic conditions for a protest vote against Macron and the more extreme views of Zemmour making her look moderate.
Macron ultimately won by a comfortable margin, despite the tension of a closer race being felt from Brussels to Washington. But that doesn’t mean he is going to have an easy second term.
The dam held, but a stream of French concerns remain that could yet boost the far-right in the future.
Patrick Galey reported from Troyes, France, and Patrick Smith reported from London.