Paris: French President Emmanuel Macron was Monday to launch efforts to unite a deeply divided nation after winning re-election in a battle against rival Marine Le Pen that saw the far right come its closest yet to taking power.
Centrist Macron won around 58.54 percent of the vote in the second-round run-off compared with 41.46 for Le Pen, according to final results from the interior ministry. Macron is the first French president in two decades to win a second term and his victory prompted a sigh of relief throughout Europe that the far right had again been thwarted from taking power in the key EU state.
But his latest victory over his far-right rival was narrower than their last face-off in 2017, when he won over 66 percent of the vote, and Le Pen's result was the best ever for the far right. The president also begins planning for his new five-year term with a daunting in-tray ranging from preparing for parliamentary elections as soon as June to implementing explosive pension reform plans and dealing with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The historic gains for the far right dampened the French leader's celebrations on Sunday night. Addressing supporters in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, he vowed to heal rifts in a deeply divided country.
- 'Everybody's president' -
"From now on, I am not the candidate of one camp, but everybody's president," he said. "Many of our fellow citizens voted for me not because of the ideas I represent, but to block those of the extreme right," Macron acknowledged. Turnout was just 72 percent, the lowest in any presidential election second-round run-off since 1969. In a striking sign of public disenchantment with politics, 8.6 percent of people who voted either delivered a blank ballot or spoilt their papers, the interior ministry figures showed. The 44-year-old president now faces the challenge of parliamentary elections in June, where keeping a majority will be critical to ensuring he can realise his ambitions. In a sign of trouble to come, two polls published late Sunday showed that most voters do not wish for him to also carry the parliamentary vote.
"Macron's biggest challenge will be to create a sense of cohesion in an extremely fragmented country," said Tara Varma, senior policy fellow and head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Le Pen will do her best to capitalise on her result for the June parliamentary elections." Several hundred demonstrators from ultra-left groups took to the streets in some French cities late Sunday in protest at the election outcome. Police used tear gas to disperse gatherings in Paris and the western city of Rennes. - 'New era' - In his victory speech, Macron promised his next five-year term would respond to the frustrations of voters who backed Le Pen. "An answer must be found to the anger and disagreements that led many of our compatriots to vote for the extreme right," he told thousands of cheering supporters.
"It will be my responsibility and that of those around me." He also pledged that this "new era" would not be one of "continuity with the last term which is now ending". French daily Le Monde called Macron's win "an evening of victory without a triumph ", while left-leaning Liberation called it "a victory without the glory". Conservative daily Le Figaro said after all the challenges of his first term, Macron's win was "no mean feat", but also asked: "Who can possibly believe that it is rooted in popular support?" Le Pen, 53, said she would "never abandon" the French and was already preparing for the June legislative elections. "The result represents a brilliant victory," she said of her second-round score.
- 'Count on France' -
For Le Pen, her third defeat in a presidential poll was a bitter pill after she ploughed years of effort into making herself electable and distancing her party from the legacy of its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. Macron's re-election sparked relief across Europe where many felt a Le Pen presidency would have left the continent rudderless following Brexit and the departure from politics of German chancellor Angela Merkel. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called Macron's victory "great news for all of Europe" while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said French voters "sent a strong vote of confidence in Europe today".
European Council president Charles Michel said the bloc could now "count on France for five more years" while European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she was "delighted". Macron will now try to implement his vision of more pro-business reform and tighter EU integration, after a first term shadowed by protests, then the coronavirus pandemic and finally Russia's invasion of Ukraine.