French President Emmanuel Macron attends a joint news conference with European Council President Charles Michel after a working lunch to discuss main priorities of the 6-month French presidency of the European Union, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. (Gonzalo Fuentes/ Pool via AP)

TUCSON — It will take some time to see where France goes next. But that old saw — plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — is for sure out the window. Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen soundly on Sunday, but the turnout of 72 percent was the lowest in decades, a shade below 2017 when he skunked her by a far wider margin.

Now France faces parliamentary elections in June. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left contender who tipped the balance toward Macron, wants to be prime minister. And an awful lot of workaday Frenchmen are hopping mad. All National Assembly seats are up for grabs. If Le Pen’s National Rally party scores big in legislative voting, Fifth Republic loopholes would force “cohabitation,” and a coalition could conceivably make her prime minister.

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But for now, I can almost hear the “oouf” of relief from eight time zones away.  

Elated messages poured into the Elysée Palace from European Union leaders who feared Le Pen would hamstring NATO by pulling out of its unified command structure and thwart a united EU stand against Vladimir Putin’s genocidal assault on Ukraine.

Volodymyr Zelensky called Macron “a true friend of Ukraine.” Tweeting in French, he said “I am convinced that we will achieve new joint victories toward a strong and united Europe.”

Le Pen’s promise to ban Muslim women’s headscarves and crack down on les immigrés portended raucous mayhem in the streets. Her off-the-wall ideas, such as legislating by referendum, would likely have tied up the Constitutional Council indefinitely.

Two New York Times interviews, among many, reflected the overriding mood in a divided France.

In a tough Paris exurb, Adbelkrim Bouadla cast an enthusiastic vote for Macron in 2017, drawn to youthful energy, fresh ideas and a rejection of far-right racism. But he saw business and the bourgeoisie favored over working families. Now, he said, the choice was between “breaking your ribs or breaking your legs.”

In a posh section of Neuilly not far away, Jean-Louis Mathieu voted for Le Pen. It wasn’t because of economic hard times. “I don’t have a money problem,” he said. But, he added, “the France we used to know, with values, with respect, doesn’t exist anymore.”

In the second round, Macron and Le Pen fought for Mélenchon’s 7.7 million voters. He urged them to shun Le Pen. Many just didn’t show up at the polls.

French elections offer lessons for America, with its endless campaigns and sound-bite debates. Big-money contributions and small donations reach into the billions. Emails bombard voters with plays to sympathy and often outrageous lies.

In France, first-round contenders can raise only 16.8 million euros ($18.5 million), and 5 million more if they reach the second round. Only individuals can donate — up to 7,500 euros to a party and 4,600 to a presidential candidate. If they abuse the limits, as Nicolas Sarkozy did, they can be jailed.

Before the first vote, main candidates and also-rans give a brief televised spiel. Drawn lots determine the order. Voting is on Sundays in conveniently placed ballot boxes. The runoff winner is declared hours after polls close. No sore loser disputes the results.

Macron began campaigning only in late March. He said he was busy with running the country and the Ukraine war. His one rally, in Seine-Saint-Denis near Paris, was a walkabout in dark suit and silk tie with a discreet security phalanx. TV cameras focused on faces in the crowd, all the colors in a new France.

He joked and bantered in man-of-the-people mode. A smiling young African-Frenchman boxer, clearly capable of reducing him to steak haché, told him: “Show us what you got.” Macron put on gloves, sparred for a minute, and embraced the man to amused applause.

In the traditional debate, nearly three hours long and watched by 15 million people in a country of 67 million, Macron was politely eviscerating. He challenged Le Pen for details on how she would fund new social benefits. He noted her party’s $12.2 million loan from a Russian bank and her chummy visit to the Kremlin in 2017.

France doesn’t do lame ducks. Had he lost, he would have been out of the Elysée in three weeks. Given the French mood, there was a strong chance of that.

The Yellow Vest movement sprang up across France in November 2018, a class conflict sparked by gas prices that roiled Paris and the provinces for more than a year before calming to a low simmer. Le Pen exploited it to the maximum.

Polices repelled violent protesters with tear gas, water cannons, flash-bang grenades and plastic bullets. Meantime, terrorist attacks and alerts brought out heavily armed patrols. Then Covid-19 lockdowns and vaccine requirements raised the heat.

France’s grandeur was built on its outsized role in the world, from culinary arts to close ties with former colonies in Africa and Asia. But global upheaval since America’s quagmire in Iraq has diminished its role.

African Muslims from former French colonies grew up with textbooks referring to “our ancestors, the Gauls.” But new arrivals from the Middle East and South Asia are not melting in the pot. In the white mainstream, young voters attuned to a wider world tend not to vote along traditional lines.   

Presidents seldom stay popular for very long in France. Macron is the first to be reelected to a second term since 2002. When his patrician manner veers into condescension and arrogance, he pisses off a lot of people.

But he clinched his reelection in the debate, exposing the nationalist Le Pen genes now masked by a cosmetic makeover. If she imposed her new order on Muslims, he said, that would spark civil war. Voters who are aghast at events in America took note.

France is different today. But Macron seemed to stir a deep-seated sense of Frenchness that reflects my favorite line from Victor Hugo’s purple pen: “France! France! Without you the world would be alone.”

Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.

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