Emmanuel Macron’s strategy paid off handsomely. The French president always wanted a rematch with the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom he vanquished in 2017. He was counting on her weaknesses and the instincts of French voters to close ranks against the far-right — the so-called republican front — to prevail once again. It worked, despite the extraordinary popular anger and invective directed at him after five turbulent years in power.

A win for Le Pen — who had promised wrenching changes for France’s economy, society and foreign policy — would have been a leap in the dark. To the immense relief of EU partners and much of the business community, the French did not want to take it, opting instead for continuity, of sorts.

Macron’s victory was historic — the first president to win re-election in two decades and the first to win a second term while controlling the government (François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac were in “cohabitation” with the opposition) since the direct vote was introduced in 1962.

It was also decisive. Macron won by a wider margin — projected to be around 58 per cent to 42 — than many of his allies had feared on the eve of the first-round vote two weeks ago. It could have been different, with Le Pen running a smart campaign focused on pocketbook concerns during a cost-of-living crisis.

In the past fortnight though, Macron succeeded in drawing attention to the incoherence of Le Pen’s programme, the extreme nature of some of her proposals, such as a complete ban in public places of the Muslim headscarf, and her “dependence” on Russian financial backing. He also made some timely adjustments to his platform to appeal to leftwing voters: a potentially slower rise in the pension age from 62 to 65 and, more significantly, embracing the concept of state planning to push down carbon emissions.

But the level of abstention — at 28 per cent, the highest since 1969 — coupled with the 60 per cent of the vote won in the first round by “anti-system parties”, hardly makes for a ringing endorsement of Macronism.

The president has promised a new, more collective approach to governing for his second term. In a conciliatory victory speech he acknowledged a duty to critics who had nonetheless voted for him to keep out the far-right. He also promised to respond to the concerns of abstainers and the 13mn or so voters who back Le Pen. He vowed to run a “kind and respectful” presidency.

We have heard him make such promises before, after the 2018-19 “gilets jaunes” protests. Can he really rein in his controlling instincts in what is already a hyper-centralised governing system? One of his first tasks as re-elected president will be to personally approve every single candidate running for his La Republique En Marche party in parliamentary elections in June. And many wonder if he will really be able to give the French the kind of “protection” from global competition so many of his critics seem to want?

Macron’s second term could prove even more tempestuous than his first. His party may lose its parliamentary majority. Although the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties are in disarray, the far-left and far-right will hope to tap into a national mood for clipping Macron’s wings.

More protests are also in prospect over reforms or the rising cost of living. Macron faces no single opposition movement, but the aggrieved could come together, as they did before in the gilets jaunes protests. The days of Macron the liberaliser are surely over.

His victory has also come at a cost, stretching to the limits the legitimacy of France’s fifth republic when the only alternatives to the incumbent’s pro-European centrism are the extreme left and the extreme right. His departure from office five years hence could yet bring the mainstream “alternation” that many French people seem to want. In the meantime, France’s political system badly needs some balm.

ben.hall@ft.com



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