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France's presidential runoff: Emmanuel Macron faces Marine Le Pen

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

French President Emmanuel Macron is heading into a runoff election with far-right rival Marine Le Pen. The two candidates beat out 10 others in a first round of voting yesterday. And this sets up a rematch for Macron and Le Pen, who faced each other in a presidential runoff five years ago. So what's changed? We go now to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So what are the final vote totals this morning? And what about those campaigns led to these results?

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, Macron has 27 1/2 percent of the vote and Marine Le Pen 23 1/2. So it's a four-point spread. It's not a lot. Macron basically didn't run a campaign. He announced that he was, you know, running again very late. And then he was occupied with the war in Ukraine. He even refused to debate ahead of the first round. To the opposite, Marine Le Pen had a very long, solid campaign, and she kept it about bread-and-butter economic issues - purchasing power, the cost of living, which turned out to be the No. 1 concerns of the French. Here's her headquarters, where I was last night, her excited supporters chanting, Marine president.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Marine president, Marine president, Marine president.

BEARDSLEY: So she's made her image more moderate, no more fear-mongering talk about immigration and leaving the European Union. In fact, there was another candidate this time around to her right, former TV pundit Eric Zemmour. And he talked about all that. His whole schtick was about French identity and how immigration is ruining France, and Islam is incompatible with French values. So that, too, made her look more mainstream. And she had a unifying message for the French.

FADEL: Macron and Le Pen have run against each other before. What's different this time?

BEARDSLEY: Well, quite frankly, she has a better chance of winning, say analysts. You know, first of all, the general context - French voters have moved to the right overall, and she's enlarged her base this time around. And like I said, she's a better-prepared candidate. She has a detailed program. She's more moderate. And, you know, even as she lost voters to Zemmour early on, she did not turn nasty. She kept steady on message about economic issues, and she surged in the last weeks. And, Leila, add to this the fact that there's a deep strain of resentment toward Macron amongst voters of all stripes, really, but especially amongst working-class voters. They say he's arrogant. He governs alone. He's been a president of the rich and elites. And he's tone-deaf. And they don't want to give him a second term.

FADEL: What about the voters of those other candidates? Who will they support?

BEARDSLEY: Well, that's the big question. You know, for Macron, there is no big well of voters to tap into, really, because the mainstream right party, which kind of fell apart five years ago, didn't even get 5% of the votes. And the third-place candidate very close to Le Pen is far-right (ph) leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. Believe it or not, he told his voters not to support the far right, but he didn't go so far as to endorse Macron. And the thing is the far left has a similar socioeconomic platform as the far right.

FADEL: Right.

BEARDSLEY: You know, they support the working class. They're against big finance and globalization that helps the elites and corporations. And so they also hate Macron, many of them, so they could vote for Le Pen.

FADEL: So what's at stake here?

BEARDSLEY: Leila, quite a lot. These are two vastly different candidates representing, you know, different voting groups. And they have two completely different visions for the country. If France has a President Le Pen, it's going to be a different country on the world stage. You know, basically, a populist would govern a major European nation. France is, you know, a member of the U.N. Security Council. It has nuclear weapons. It's part of NATO. France would turn inward. She even talked about having border controls with Germany. You know, and we wouldn't be such a close ally with France anymore. She'd renew ties maybe with Russia. I spoke with Martin Quencez. He's head of the Paris office for the German Marshall Fund. And here's what he says about France's relationship with Russia.

MARTIN QUENCEZ: Despite the war, Marine Le Pen is still advocating for an alliance with Russia and still considers that it will be possible for her as president to consider Vladimir Putin as an ally.

BEARDSLEY: You know, she sort of avoided the war in Ukraine as much as she can. But in these last two intense weeks of campaigning, Macron will make her talk about it. They'll have a debate, and it'll be very intense. Voters will go back to the polls on April 24 to choose between the two.

FADEL: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thank you for your reporting.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.