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French presidential election: incumbent Macron beats far-right rival Le Pen

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

French President Emmanuel Macron has won a second term. He beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen with 58.5% of the vote. His majority is solid, but it is still nearly 10 points below Macron's margin of victory when he faced the same candidate in 2017. This time around, many French voters are feeling less euphoric than relieved.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Trois, deux, un.

(CHEERING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thousands of Macron supporters gathered under the Eiffel Tower and counted down as the election results were announced at 8 o'clock Sunday night on the nightly news. As the winner's face popped up on giant screens, the crowd exploded.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

(CHEERING)

BEARDSLEY: Along with the joy came an intense feeling of relief for many of having barely avoided catastrophe. Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally party has never won so many votes. She was a better candidate this time - more moderate, connecting with voters on core economic issues and facing a president many find arrogant and aloof.

Macron supporter Aymerick Andriamihaja says everyone knows it's different this time around.

AYMERICK ANDRIAMIHAJA: France is really divided. After the gilet jaunes, the yellow vest, after the COVID crisis, I think we have a melt of a lot of things, from anti-vax movement, from the protests during the yellow vest. And I think all the people here around us, we understand that.

BEARDSLEY: In polling places across the country Sunday, many voters turned out not so much as for Macron as against Le Pen, in line with the long tradition of erecting a dam to faire barrage against the far-right.

Karine Harris cast her ballot in an elementary school in Paris's 15th arrondissement.

KARINE HARRIS: We have no choice. As the French say, it's between peste and cholera.

BEARDSLEY: She's talking about choosing between the plague and cholera - in other words, an impossible choice.

HARRIS: I have to choose not the worst one. So I chose Emmanuel Macron.

BEARDSLEY: OK. So you are actually voting against her?

HARRIS: Yes, exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Macron acknowledged these voters and has promised to govern differently this time around.

Vincent Martigny teaches political science at the University of Nice. He says Macron's legitimacy is not quite the same as in 2017.

VINCENT MARTIGNY: His mandate is a lot weaker, so we'll have to make compromises. And the problem with Mr. Macron - he's not a very good compromiser. He's somebody who says, I listen, and at the end I decide.

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen conceded shortly after the results were announced. But she sounded triumphant, not deflated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: With more than 41% of the vote, she called the results a stunning victory, insisting her party is more determined than ever. Le Pen's strong results means the battle is on for crucial legislative elections in June that are often referred to as the third round of the presidential vote. If a French president wants to implement his agenda, he must get a majority in parliament. Macron's victory was hailed across Europe. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief. A victory for Le Pen, an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, would have been a terrible blow to the bloc at a crucial time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "ODE TO JOY")

BEARDSLEY: Macron took to the stage at the Eiffel Tower with his wife, Brigitte, and a group of French schoolchildren to the accompaniment of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy," the anthem of the European Union. Bravo, Emmanuel, wrote European Council President Charles Michel on Twitter. In this turbulent period, he said, we need a solid Europe and a committed France. Macron also got a congratulatory tweet from Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who called him a true friend of Ukraine.

(CHEERING)

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.