In the end it came down, as it always does, to the battle of the beavers. I'd better explain. Beavers, in French political jargon, are voters who actively dislike the candidate they're voting for, but who are willing to collaborate with others of equal reluctance in building a dam to keep out the candidate they all hate even more. Personally, I prefer to think of them as nose-holders: those ready to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two stinkers, as they judge it.
These were the voters who decided Sunday's run-off election for the presidency of the Republic. In the first round, when people can more or less vote for whoever they want, only Emmanuel Macron won the positive assent of even a quarter (27.8%) of voters: scarcely a ringing endorsement. With Marine Le Pen of the patchily-resprayed Rassemblement National on 23.1%, Macron needed to persuade more people who don't like him to hold their noses than she could. So it proved.
His 58.55% to 41.45% win over Marine Le Pen was, as her supporters consoled themselves by insisting, less than his two-to-one victory over her in 2017. That four in 10 French voters are ready to support the far-right lends context to France's reputation among other market economies as a playground for old lefties. All the same, which national leader would not settle for a 17-point margin of victory? If Le Pen were ever to have her moment, this was it. And she failed, decisively.
The real disrupter who made this election so volatile was neither of the front-runners. It was the appalling Éric Zemmour. For several weeks in the early stages of the campaign Zemmour, a serially-convicted Muslim hater, was running the principals alarmingly close, and snapping particularly at the heels of Marine Le Pen. Only with the nightly television pictures of wretched refugees flooding west from the atrocities in Ukraine did Zemmour's anti-immigration rhetoric jar with the sensibilities of even far-right voters (Vladimir Putin was the other big disrupter in this election). Around half of Zemmour's support decamped to le Pen, who increasingly dialled down her more xenophobic themes, and talked instead about the cost of living.
It meant that a lot of the nose-holders she might have expected to swell her second-round vote were already aboard by the time of the first. But it did make immigration and assimilation of minorities a key current in the early stages of election, encouraging other candidates to tack rightwards in search of the same electoral wave: disastrously in the case of the Republicans' Valérie Pécresse, several of whose big-name supporters signalled their distaste by throwing in their lot with Macron.
The Zemmour factor helped cement the idea that this election was not about right versus left but about insurgency versus establishment, with Macron – pro-Europe, pro-business, internationalist, technocratic, educated, decent – cast as the latter. There is an undoubted, if nebulous, popular longing for a better way to run France.
The only convincing way to explain the high first-round vote (nearly 22%) for veteran far-left maverick Jean-Luc Mélenchon is that he too donned the mantle of insurgency, campaigning on the slogan 'Another world is possible'. In our city of Montpellier, he scored an astonishing 40%. It generated the one real uncertainty of the second round: namely, whether enough Mélenchon supporters were ready to hold their noses for Macron. The man himself would only instruct them not to vote Le Pen.
This dichotomy between insurgency and establishment had ramifications across the field. The traditional mainstream parties, the Republicans (party of Chirac and Sarkozy) and the Socialists (Mitterand/Hollande) were all-but obliterated, as relics of the old establishment. Inept campaigns by their respective candidates, Valérie Pécresse and Anne Hidalgo, didn't help. Both failed to reach even the 5% threshold for state repayment of election costs: as did the Greens, perhaps more surprisingly given their upsurge in last year's municipal elections.
So is this divide the future of French politics? It may look like it given similar patterns in other countries from the US to Hungary, especially when one recalls that Macron himself appealed as an insurgent against the old orthodoxies when he won the presidency in 2017.
But there are persuasive reasons to think otherwise. France, unlike Britain, does not treat every election as a proxy for the next General Election. The French vote horses for courses. The presidency is about individual candidates more than parties. We should remember that the Republicans, the Socialists and the Greens all did well as recently as last year's municipal elections. Here in Montpellier, a highly-regarded mayor who had jumped ship from the Socialists to the broad left was ousted in favour of the Socialists, the city's traditional local election preference.
It is also easy to overlook the significance of the cut in the presidential term in 2000 from seven years to five. The effect was to align the presidency with the parliamentary cycle. In 2017, the Macron momentum carried his pop-up En Marche party into a majority in the Assemblée Nationale. But En Marche, even with rebranding, has failed to establish itself as a grassroots movement, and fared poorly in local and European elections. It has reason to anticipate a thumping when the French elect their new parliament in June.
There seems little doubt that many nose-holders turned out for Macron on Sunday in full expectation that he will have to work with a hostile parliament in his second term, ready to curb some of his least popular plans like raising the retirement age from 62 to 65. 'The third round starts tonight', said Mélenchon within an hour of the result.
What of Marine Le Pen? Zemmour, who has recruited her niece and sometime heir-apparent Marion Marèchal, is agitating for the far-right to combine forces… under new leadership. She had said this would be her last presidential contest, but will fight on for the parliamentary election. She has striven to detoxify the quasi-fascist party she inherited from her father, Jean-Marie, with mixed results. At this election, she remembered to smile and keep her cool, her posters bore the single word 'Marine', and she smoothed over her harsher policies: EU institutional reform rather than Frexit; a 'French First' approach to public services with prohibition in public of the Muslim headscarf (oddly, she calls it a veil) rather than a crude ban; a referendum on controlling immigration rather than a blanket block.
In last Wednesday's key TV debate, Macron forensically stripped away the veneer, leaving a clear impression that only the old policies exist in any detail. Thoughtfully, he also reminded her that her party is in hock to a Putin-friendly Russian bank.
Critics of the two-round system complain that the President is invariably elected on a negative mandate for what s/he is not, rather than is. One survey suggests that as many as 90% of Macron's votes on Sunday were motivated primarily by the determination to stop Le Pen. It is a valid point, but the same applies under most democratic systems. It did Boris Johnson no harm in 2019 to be not-Jeremy-Corbyn. Being not-Donald-Trump was a more valuable electoral asset than being Joe Biden.
A cynic might even question whether presenting voters with a choice between two negatives is any poorer a form of democracy than a ruling party that decides every few years to perpetuate itself in office by changing Etonians. And it has given us a fascinating election.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster