PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron is set to begin efforts to unite a deeply divided nation after winning re-election on Sunday in a battle against rival Marine Le Pen that saw the far right come its closest yet to taking power.
Centrist Macron won around 58.6 percent of the vote in the second-round run-off compared with Le Pen's 41.4 percent, according to official results from the Interior Ministry.
Macron is the first French president in two decades to win a second term, but his latest victory over his far-right rival was narrower than their last face-off in 2017, when the margin was 66.1 percent to 33.9 percent.
The historic gains for the far right dampened the French leader's celebrations on Sunday night. Addressing supporters in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, he vowed to heal rifts in a deeply divided country.
The 44-year-old president will start his second term with the challenge of parliamentary elections in June, where keeping a majority will be critical to ensuring he can realise his ambitions.
Several hundred demonstrators from ultra-left groups took to the streets in some French cities to protest Macron's re-election and Le Pen's score. Police used tear gas to disperse gatherings in Paris and the western city of Rennes.
In his victory speech on the Champ de Mars in central Paris, Macron promised his next five-year term would respond to the frustrations of voters who backed Le Pen.
"An answer must be found to the anger and disagreements that led many of our compatriots to vote for the extreme right," he told thousands of cheering supporters.
"It will be my responsibility and that of those around me."
He also pledged a "renewed method" to governing 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 the capital, in which 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 the June legislative elections.
"The result represents a brilliant victory," she said to cheers.
"This evening, we launch the great battle for the legislative elections," Le Pen said, adding that she felt "hope" and calling on opponents of the president to join with her National Rally (RN) party.
'Count on France'
For Le Pen, a third defeat in a presidential poll will be a bitter pill to swallow after she ploughed 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.
The projections caused immense relief in Europe after fears a Le Pen presidency would leave the continent rudderless following Brexit and the departure from politics of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called Macron's victory "great news for all of Europe" while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said French voters "sent a strong vote of confidence in Europe today".
European Council president Charles Michel said the bloc could now "count on France for five more years" while European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen also congratulated Macron, saying she was "delighted to be able to continue our excellent cooperation".
In another election Sunday, Slovenia's three-time Prime Minister Janez Jansa, criticised by opponents as an authoritarian right-wing populist, was at risk of losing power to a party led by political newcomer Robert Golob.
'Ocean of abstention'
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 coronavirus 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.
Polling organisations estimated turnout of just 72 percent, the lowest in any presidential election second-round run-off since 1969.
Meanwhile, 6.35 percent of voters in the election voted for neither candidate in blank ballots while 2.25 percent spoilt their papers.
The third-placed candidate in the first round, hard-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, had refused to endorse Macron.
Melenchon also has his eyes set on the June elections.
While he welcomed Le Pen's defeat as "very good news for the unity of our people", Melenchon pointed out that the two leading candidates had barely managed to win a third of support from registered voters.
Macron "is submerged in an ocean of abstention and spoilt ballots", he said....