April 11, 2022 - 9:00am

Almost against expectations, President Emmanuel Macron topped the poll by more than four points in the first round of the French presidential elections yesterday.

Macron may not be everyone’s hero. And he is not yet home free. The second round of the election, a re-match of 2017, will be a much closer-run thing. Opinion polls yesterday gave Macron a lead over the far-Right leader Marine Le Pen varying from 54-46% to 51-49%.

All the same, this was an excellent result for Macron. Over the last month Le Pen has surged by 7 points in the opinion polls and seemed capable of building even greater momentum by snatching first position yesterday. Despite outpolling her polls with 23.41%, she ended further behind Macron than she did in the first round in 2017.

In truth Macron is detested by many people in France, especially on parts of the Left. He should prevail on 24 April but Le Pen’s chances cannot be written off (as they could in 2017 even before her calamitous TV debate performance).

Macron lost to Le Pen yesterday in every category of age except the over-65’s, who voted in enormous numbers and disproportionately (41%) for the President. His high overall score — 27.6% — was swollen by last-minute Le Pen-fearing transfers from the centre-Right and the centre-Left.

As a result, the reservoir of potential extra votes for Macron in Round Two is depleted. The centre-Right candidate Valérie Pécresse — once tipped as Macron’s greatest danger — was reduced to a woeful 4.79%.

There was also a last-minute scramble by Left-wing voters to try to push the hard-Left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon into the run-off instead of Le Pen. They almost succeeded. Mélenchon, anti-Nato, anti-EU, anti-market, fell just 1.5 points short of second place.

His 21.95% squeezed the other Left and green candidates to very low scores. Anne Hidalgo, candidate for the Socialists who were in power until 5 years ago, got 1.74% and only 600,000 votes.

Le Pen still has another 9 points of far-Right support to harvest in round two — the 7% who stuck with her rival Éric Zemmour and the 2% who voted for the perpetual also-ran Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. 

She will try to make the second round a referendum against Macron and a referendum against the “elites” and the pro-Brussels, Paris establishment. Just over 50% of the first round vote went yesterday to tear-it-all-down candidates of Right and Left.

Can she persuade enough radical Leftists to abstain or vote with the nationalist Right for her to win on 24 April?

Macron will try to make the second round a referendum against Le Pen: against her years of Vladimir Putin fellow-travelling; and against her proposals for “Frexit”-by-stealth through breaking EU free trade and free movement laws.

At first glance, yesterday’s voting pattern is unfavourable to him. Only 38.7% of voters supported candidates who were clearly pro-status quo.

There is, however, another striking pattern in the results, which should be more helpful to Macron. The French electorate, as I predicted in this space a few weeks ago, has now divided, possibly permanently, into three camps not two.

If you tot up the scores, 32% voted yesterday for something close to Macronist, pro-European centrism; 31.5% for the far-Right and 32.3% for a scattered Left. 

Which way will the Left tip on 24 April? It will deeply pain many French Left-wingers to do so (and many will refuse) but I expect that they will vote sufficiently anti-Le Pen to give Macron a second term. 

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.