Victory for the center in France

Emmanuel Macron prevailed in France’s presidential election, crushing far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s second-round ballot. Macron’s victory is a win for the center in France and Europe more broadly, establishing a solid bulwark against the populist tide that had threatened to swamp the continent’s politics. Yet celebrations must be tempered by the scale of the challenges that Macron, an inexperienced politician, must now confront, as well as the recognition that while Le Pen was defeated, Macron is in many ways also a repudiation of the established political order in France.

Macron’s win in the runoff was widely expected. He bested Le Pen (and nine other presidential contenders) in the first round of voting, and the other parties rallied around the centrist upstart. While some observers held their breath during the second half of the campaign, fearing a Brexit-style upset by the National Front leader, Macron’s lead in all opinion polls was so substantial that a loss would have required a catastrophic failure of polling and French politics.

Instead, Macron won just under 65 percent of votes cast, with Le Pen claiming the rest. As French President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, declared after the results were in, the victory showed an overwhelming number of French citizens affirmed their support for “the values of the Republic.” Even Le Pen, in her concession speech, acknowledged the voters had opted for continuity.

That is reassuring, as is the fact that French voters were not intimidated by an Islamic State-linked terrorist act only days before the first round of voting. Similarly, the refusal of those same voters to pay much attention to purloined emails hacked from the Macron campaign demonstrates good sense — and a limit to foreign efforts to influence democratic political campaigns.

Nevertheless, the fact that Macron, a former banker with no formal political experience, is ascending to the presidency is a worrying sign of the stress that French values are experiencing. While the ideological center has held in this election, France’s established political parties have been rejected. Macron formed a movement, En Marche (“Forward” or Onward”), a little over a year ago that seeks to unite both left and right in a progressive grouping. It intends to run candidates in French parliamentary elections that will be held next month.

En Marche needs to do well in that ballot. Without a parliamentary force behind him, Macron is a solitary leader with no legislative team to help him govern. That will prove fatal given the scale of the challenges that he faces. It is precisely the failure of the existing political classes to muster the will and the energy to address those challenges — a stagnant economy, an increasingly fractured society, a growing sense of loss in the face of globalization — that propelled him into office.

An inability to address them will re-energize extremists like Le Pen and the National Front. The NF is still a distinct minority in French politics, but its popularity has not peaked. It attracts more votes in each election; a failure by Macron, another outsider, might provide the next generation of NF leaders the opening they need.

That means that Macron has to put substance on his promises, both during and immediately after the campaign, to unite the country and put its interests first. There is a sense in France that politicians put their interests above that of the country, which has bred the anger and populism that dominates contemporary politics. Thus, the style of his leadership will be every bit as important as its substance.

Success will depend on Macron’s work with other European officials to forge a policy and a European Union that is more responsive to the needs of its citizens. Populist and anti-globalist impulses are generated by a sense among voters that political systems are not working for them. The National Front message, like that of other right-wing groups, is based on alienation and fear — fear for both personal safety and economic security. Macron must address those two issues directly and devise policies that provide French voters a reason to look to the future with hope.

A critical partner in this effort is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Macron is pro-EU and the German media has been delighted by his win as it affirms the chancellor’s vision of an EU that is open and moving toward greater integration. Merkel in fact enjoyed two electoral successes last weekend: in France and in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where her Christian Democrat Union bested the Social Democrats, which ruled the state since 2012. Merkel, like Macron, is hoping that not only France’s center, but Europe’s too, will hold after a year of tests.