Looks like the European Union is here to stay. For now, at least. Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France on Sunday, as his business-friendly pro–European integration vision for the country easily won over far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, who had threatened to take the country out of the European Union. Projections released shortly after polling stations closed showed Macron beating Le Pen 65–35 percent, suggesting his margin of victory was larger than the 20 points pre-election polls had suggested.
A Macron victory is also significant because it marks yet another instance of Europeans rejecting the type of nationalist populism that pushed Britain toward Brexit and swept Donald Trump into the White House. Now France becomes the third European country—after Austria and the Netherlands—to reject nationalist, anti–EU candidates. European officials were quick to celebrate, with the spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel describing Macron’s win as “a victory for a strong united Europe and for Franco–German friendship.” The president of the European Council also celebrated the victory and congratulated the “French people for choosing Liberty, Equality and Fraternity over tyranny of fake news.”
Despite Le Pen’s resounding defeat, her National Front still got a record amount of support, illustrating how her anti-immigrant ideals have gone from the fringe to being relatively mainstream in French society. In conceding defeat, Le Pen still emphasized that her “historic and massive” support had made her the leader of “the biggest opposition force” in the country.
Despite the consequential nature of Sunday’s vote, turnout was estimated to have been the lowest in more than 40 years. In fact analysts were quick to warn that Macron’s decisive victory shouldn’t be interpreted as a clear sign of support for the man who will be France’s youngest president. Instead, many voters supported his free-market, pro-business platform simply as a way to stop Le Pen.
Whatever the reasons for the votes, outgoing French President François Hollande celebrated Macron’s victory by saying it “confirms that a very great majority of our fellow citizens wanted to rally to the values of the Republic and mark their attachment to the European Union as well as to France’s open attitude to the world.”
Macron may be celebrating now, but harsh reality is likely to quickly set in as he will face his first big test next month during the parliamentary elections. And for now at least it’s far from clear that his year-old political movement will be able to secure a majority in order to implement his plans. Some are not optimistic, notes the Guardian’s Timothy Garton Ash:
Macron knows what needs to be done in France but is unlikely to succeed in doing it. To those who supported Le Pen you have to add the many who abstained, including leftwing voters who described this second round as a choice between cholera and the plague. The president-elect has no established party behind him, so it is totally unclear what majority will emerge from next month’s French parliamentary elections.
He is already being described as “Renzi 2.0”, a reference to the Italian would-be-reformist former premier Matteo Renzi. His super-ambitious target is to reduce public spending from 56% of GDP to just—wait for it—52%. The obstacles to change in France are enormous, from powerful unions and a bloated public sector to farmers who make a habit of blocking roads with tractors. If Macron fails to reform France, in 2022 we may yet have a president Le Pen.