By Stuart Williams and Jurgen Hecker
(AFP) — French President Emmanuel Macron faced the daunting challenge of uniting a deeply divided nation Monday after winning re-election in a battle against Marine Le Pen that saw the far right come its closest yet to taking power.
Centrist Macron won 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.
But his victory over his far-right rival was narrower than their last face-off in 2017 when Macron won over 66 percent, and Le Pen’s result was the best ever for the far right.
The president already has an overflowing in-tray, ranging from preparing for parliamentary elections in June to implementing explosive pension reform plans and dealing with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Macron made no public appearance on Monday, staying in the secluded presidential retreat of La Lanterne next to the park of the Versailles Palace outside Paris to plot his future political strategy.
“The difficulties are going to start real soon,” Brice Teinturier, managing director at public opinion specialists Ipsos France, told AFP.
– ‘Respond to the angry’ –
Addressing supporters late Sunday, Macron vowed to heal rifts in a deeply divided country, vowing a response to the “anger” that prompted many French to vote for the far right.
Turnout was the lowest in any presidential election second-round run-off since 1969 and, in another striking sign of disenchantment with politics, 8.6 percent of people who voted either delivered a blank ballot or spoilt their papers.
“We need to respond to the angry and worried messages from millions of French people who say ‘I can’t make ends meet’,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Monday.
The 44-year-old president now faces parliamentary elections in June, where keeping a majority will be critical for his ambitions.
“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.
– ‘Victory without triumph’ –
French daily Le Monde called Macron’s win “an evening of victory without a triumph”, while left-leaning Liberation said it was “a victory without the glory”.
Conservative daily Le Figaro said Macron’s win was “no mean feat”, but also asked: “Who can possibly believe that it is rooted in popular support?”
Within the next two weeks, Macron is expected to reshuffle his government, with the departure of Prime Minister Jean Castex a near certainty, and several other ministers also being replaced.
“Many in government are exhausted and he needs new blood,” said one Elysee official, asking not to be named.
Macron will aim for gender parity in his next cabinet and has said he would like to see a woman become his next prime minister.
For Le Pen, her third defeat in a presidential poll was a bitter pill after years of effort at making herself electable. But she made clear that she retained political ambition.
On Sunday Le Pen, 53, said she would “never abandon” the French and declared that she had scored a “brilliant victory” in her defeat to Macron.
– ‘A true friend’ –
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.
Macron’s re-election sparked relief across Europe where he has been seen as a guarantor of continuity.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called Macron’s victory “great news”, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she was “delighted” and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said French voters had “sent a strong vote of confidence in Europe today”.
That praise was echoed by other world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Russian President Vladimir Putin — whom Macron had unsuccessfully sought to persuade to end the invasion of Ukraine — said Monday he wished the French president “success in your state activities, as well as good health and well-being”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Macron he was “a true friend of Ukraine”.
© Agence France-Presse