PARIS, France (AFP) — French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday defeated his rival Marine Le Pen in presidential elections, projections showed, prompting a wave of relief in Europe that the far-right had been prevented from taking power.
Centrist Macron was set to win 57.0-58.5 percent of the vote compared with Le Pen on 41.5-43%, according to projections by polling firms for French television channels based on a sample of the vote count.
The result is narrower than the second-round clash in 2017, when the same two candidates met in the run-off and Macron polled more than 66% of the vote.
The outcome, expected to be confirmed by official results overnight, caused immense relief in Europe after fears a Le Pen presidency would leave the continent rudderless following Brexit and the departure of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called Macron’s victory “great news for all of Europe.”
EU President Charles Michel said the bloc can now “count on France for five more years” while commission chief Ursula von der Leyen rapidly congratulated him saying she was “delighted to be able to continue our excellent cooperation.”
Following news of the exit polls, Macron vowed to find a response to the anger of voters who backed his far-right rival, saying his new term would not continue unchanged from the last five years.
“An answer must be found to the anger and disagreements that led many of our compatriots to vote for the extreme right. It will be my responsibility and that of those around me,” he told a victory rally in front of the Eiffel Tower after projections showed he had been re-elected.
Macron also pledged a “renewed method” to govern France, adding that this “new era” would not be one of “continuity with the last term which is now ending.”
In a combative speech to supporters in Paris where she accepted the result but showed no sign of quitting politics, Le Pen, 53, said she would “never abandon” the French and was already preparing for June legislative elections.
“The result represents a brilliant victory,” she said to cheers.
The relatively comfortable margin of victory gives Macron some confidence as he heads into a second five-year mandate, but the election also represents the closest the far-right has ever come to winning power in France.
Macron is the first French president to win re-election since Jacques Chirac in 2002 after his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande left office after only one term.
The 44-year-old is to make a victory speech on the Champ de Mars in central Paris at the foot of the Eiffel Tower where flag-waving supporters erupted in joy when the projections appeared at 8:00 p.m. local time (18:00 GMT).
Macron will be hoping for a less complicated second term that will allow him to implement his vision of more pro-business reform and tighter EU integration after a first term shadowed by protests, then the pandemic and finally Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But he will have to win over those who backed his opponents and the millions of French who did not bother to vote.
On the basis of the official figures, polling organizations estimated that the abstention rate was on course for 28% which, if confirmed, would be the highest in any presidential election second-round run-off since 1969.
The outcome of the first round on April 10 had left Macron in a solid but not unassailable position to retain the presidency.
Convincing supporters of the hard-left third-placed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon to hold their noses and vote for the former investment banker was a key priority for Macron in the second phase of the campaign.
Macron will also need to ensure his party finds strong grassroots support to keep control of a parliamentary majority in the legislative elections in June and avoid any awkward “cohabitation” with a premier who does not share his political views.
Bitter pill for Le Pen
High on his to-do list is pension reform, including a raising of the French retirement age which Macron has argued is essential for the budget but is likely to run into strong opposition and protests.
He will also have to rapidly return from the campaign trail to dealing with the Russian onslaught against Ukraine, with pressure on France to step up supplies of weapons to Kyiv and signs President Vladimir Putin is losing interest in any diplomacy.
For Le Pen, her third defeat in presidential polls will be a bitter pill to swallow after she plowed years of effort into making herself electable and distancing her party from the legacy of its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Critics insisted her party never stopped being extreme-right and racist while Macron repeatedly pointed to her plan to ban the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in public if elected.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round in 2002, the result stunned France and he won less than 18% in the subsequent run-off against Chirac.