PARIS — A day after Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, emerged as his challenger for the final round of France’s presidential election in less than two weeks, President Emmanuel Macron immediately set about on Monday to build the “dam.”
Dams are the mainstream French voters who, time and again, have put political differences aside in the second round and voted for anyone but a Le Pen in a so-called “Republican front” to deny the far right the presidency.
But after Sunday’s first round, when 32 percent of French voters supported candidates on the extreme right — a record — the dam may be more precarious than ever.
Mr. Macron, widely criticized for a listless campaign, moved quickly Monday to shore it up, directly challenging Ms. Le Pen and her party, the National Rally, in the economically depressed north where she dominated Sunday.
In Denain, a city won by Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Macron spoke of the worries of the youth in Denain and other social issues. He tried to remind voters of the extremist roots of Ms. Le Pen’s party, referring to it by its old name, the National Front.
At a campaign stop of her own in a rural area, Yonne, Ms. Le Pen said that the dam was a dishonest strategy to win an election, adding that “it’s a way to save yourself when you don’t deserve it.’’
In a triumphant speech against the majestic backdrop of the Louvre Museum five years ago, Mr. Macron had launched his presidency by pledging to unite the French so that there would be “no reason at all to vote for the extremes.’’
But in addition to Ms. Le Pen’s second-place finish, with 23 percent of the vote, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist veteran, won 22 percent of Sunday’s votes to finish a strong third.
Mr. Mélenchon’s supporters — split in their attitudes toward Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen — could now help determine the election’s final outcome on April 24.
After five years of Mr. Macron, who trounced Ms. Le Pen in the 2017 runoff, the far-right leader emerged stronger than ever. She has softened her image in a successful process of “undemonizing’’ and focused relentlessly on ordinary voters’ economic hardship.
In Yonne, Ms. Le Pen hammered away at the themes that carried her through to the second round. Meeting with a cereal farmer, she spoke of how rising prices of fuel and fertilizers following the war in Ukraine would raise the cost of staples at supermarkets and hurt the most vulnerable.
The far right’s record performance on Sunday resulted from a combination of factors, including Ms. Le Pen’s own efforts to revamp her image, a successful cultural battle waged by conservative forces in recent years, and a series of Islamist attacks in France since 2015.
But critics say that it also reflected Mr. Macron’s continued strategy of triangulating France’s electoral landscape. While Mr. Macron was regarded as a center-left candidate five years ago, he shifted rightward during his presidency, sensing that his main challenge would come from Ms. Le Pen.
That shift was embodied by a series of laws toughening France’s stance on immigration, empowering the police, and combating Islamist extremism. Many working French also felt that his economic policies unfairly favored the rich and have left them more adrift.
If Mr. Macron’s intention was to defuse Ms. Le Pen’s appeal by stripping her of her core issues, critics say the approach backfired by ushering the talking points of the far right deeper into the mainstream political debate.
Then, Ms. Le Pen also shifted her message to pocketbook issues that have now resonated even more broadly as energy prices spike because of the war in Ukraine.
Sacha Houlié, a lawmaker and a spokesman for Mr. Macron’s campaign, said that the president was aiming to strengthen the dam strategy. He acknowledged that there have been “some mistakes” and “blunders,” noting that some government ministers had picked up themes and expressions promoted by the far right.
But Mr. Houlié denied that Mr. Macron had normalized far-right ideas, saying his government had mainly tried to respond to people’s growing concerns on crime and immigration. “We cannot sweep the dust under the carpet,” he said, referring to the issues.
April 10, 2022, 5:40 p.m. ET
But many, especially Mr. Mélenchon’s supporters of the left, feel so betrayed that Mr. Macron may have a harder time in this next election persuading them to join his call for unity by building a dam against Ms. Le Pen, whom the president has called a danger to democracy.
Alexis Lévrier, an historian who has written about Mr. Macron’s relations with the news media, said that as Mr. Macron tried to reshape French politics around a strict divide between his mainstream movement and Ms. Le Pen, he “contributed to the rise in power of the far right.”
Unwittingly, “he’s a pyromaniac firefighter,” Mr. Lévrier said.
A resident of Guyancourt — a well-off, left-leaning city southwest of Paris where Mr. Mélenchon came in first Sunday — Stéphanie Noury said that, in 2017, she gave Mr. Macron her vote as part of a dam against the far right. But this time, she planned to stay home for the final round.
“Macron played into the hands of the extreme right,’’ said Ms. Noury, 55, a human resources manager who voted Sunday for Mr. Mélenchon. “He told himself that he would always win against the extreme right.’’
Compared to 2017, Ms. Le Pen’s share of the first-round vote went up by a couple of percentage points despite the direct challenge of a new rival, the far-right TV pundit Éric Zemmour, who urged his supporters to vote for Ms. Le Pen in the upcoming showdown.
On Sunday, Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Zemmour and a third far-right candidate, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, together got 32 percent of the vote. In 2017, Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Dupont-Aignan collected 26 percent in the first round.
Voters first formed a dam against the extreme right in 2002 when Ms. Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, shocked the political establishment by making it into a runoff against Jacques Chirac. Another dam helped defeat Ms. Le Pen in 2017.
To gain credibility on the right, in 2019, Mr. Macron gave his first long interview on the sensitive issues of immigration and Islam to Valeurs Actuelles, a magazine that straddles the right and far right.
“By talking to us, Emmanuel Macron came to seek some legitimacy on these subjects, from right-wing people who felt he was doing nothing,” said Geoffroy Lejeune, the publication’s editor. “He knows that by doing this, he’s sending a big signal.”
Aurélien Taché, a lawmaker once allied with Mr. Macron, said the president was elected in 2017 thanks to voters who put aside their political differences and united against Ms. Le Pen.
He said Mr. Macron should have taken those votes — mainly from the left — into account in his policies afterward.
“He did not consider them,” he said, adding that Mr. Macron instead worked to “set up this cleavage’’ between him and Ms. Le Pen, leading to a “high-risk rematch.”
“There have been, on a whole range of topics, very strong concessions made to the far right,” Mr. Taché said, also citing tougher immigration rules and the application of a stricter version of French secularism, called laïcité.
But Mr. Taché, who quit Mr. Macron’s party in 2020 over the president’s shift to the right, was especially critical of the government’s landmark law against separatism, which has been criticized inside and outside France, including by the U.S. envoy on international religious freedom.
The law amounted to “making Islam and Muslims invisible,” Mr. Taché said.
Some academics, political opponents and Muslim organizations have also criticized the law as discriminating against French Muslims by leading to the widespread closing of mosques, Muslim associations and schools.
That resentment may now also complicate Mr. Macron’s dam-building effort.
To be re-elected this time, for instance, he will have to persuade voters in places likes Trappes, a working-class city with a large Muslim population southwest of Paris, to join the dam against Ms. Le Pen.
A longtime stronghold of Mélenchon supporters, Trappes strongly backed Mr. Macron in the 2017 runoff. But comments by voters Sunday suggested that the dam might not be as effective this time.
Frédéric Renan, 47, a computer programmer, said he would abstain or cast a blank vote in a showdown between Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen.
“Macron opened the door to the extreme right,’’ Mr. Renan said, adding that the president’s economic policies hurt the poor and fueled the rise of the far right.
“I don’t see how voting for Macron is a vote in a dam against the extreme right,” he said. “Some people will say that not participating in the dam against the extreme right is irresponsible, that the threat of the extreme right is greater than what Emmanuel Macron proposes, but I’m not convinced.’’
Adèle Cordonnier contributed reporting.