Vive Le Centre? Why Establishment Europe Shouldn't Feel Too Relieved About Le Pen's Defeat

French president-elect Emmanuel Macron waves to the crowd at the Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris on May 7. Emmanuel Macron was elected French president in a resounding victory over far-right National Front rival Marine Le Pen after a deeply divisive campaign. Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty

It was the day the world didn't end; the day that the tide of populism that gave the world Brexit and Donald Trump turned; the moment when French voters chose pragmatism over protest. That, at least, was the judgement of Europe's establishment at the victory of centrist Emmanuel Macron in the May 7 French presidential election.

It's not hard to see why the defeat of the Euroskeptic, anti-immigration Marine Le Pen was so vital to the West's future. A victory for Le Pen's far-right National Front party would likely have heralded the disintegration of the European Union and the end of the continent's grand experiment with open borders. And it would have caused a deep crisis in a world order based on free trade, mass migration and globalization—precisely the forces that Le Pen's insurgent campaign blamed for France's ills.

Macron—a former economy minister and relative political unknown before he launched his surprise centrist-insurgent bid for the presidency last November—stormed into the Elysée Palace by a decisive 66 percent. And yet, despite the palpable relief at the result in Brussels and in government offices across Europe, Macron's margin was in fact uncomfortably small. In 2002, Le Pen's Holocaust-denying father Jean-Marie, founder of the National Front, polled under 18 percent to establishment candidate Jacques Chirac's 82.2 percent; a decade and a half later the nationalist vote in France has almost doubled to 33.9 percent. The danger remains that Le Pen's anti-globalist, nativist ideology is still only one economic crisis away from power.

Read more: What you need to know about France's election result and the battles to come

Even in defeat, Le Pen has already realigned French politics. Her "project [is to] reconfigure French democracy around the question of identity," wrote Sylvain Crépon, a sociologist specializing in the National Front, in the French daily Libération. "It wants the principal divide to be between those attached to national identity (nationalists, patriots) and those who seek to destroy it (globalists, cosmopolitans, pro-Europeans)." The election's first round saw all the candidates of France's mainstream political parties eliminated from the race, leaving two political insurgents to face off in the final round. If Le Pen can replace a "supposedly outmoded left-right divide" based on the traditional tribal loyalties of money and class then, argues Crépon, "she can present her party as the one true alternative to what she describes as a system of 'uncontrolled globalization.'"

Marine Le Pen, French National Front candidate for France's 2017 presidential election, concedes defeat at the Chalet du Lac in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris, on May 7. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

It was Le Pen's passionate denunciation of globalization and immigration that made her bid for France's presidency so alarming for observers around the world. Anti-globalization and anti-immigrant feelings fueled Trump's victory last November and were major factors in Britain's vote to leave the European Union. Most Western nations have a large constituency of working-class voters who fear losing jobs to immigrants and cheaper factories abroad, as well as middle-class voters angry at bank bailouts. More, violent extremism and the refugee crisis have brought Europe's simmering culture wars over unintegrated Muslim minorities to the boiling point. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has threatened to defy European rules and close his country's borders to immigrants; in the Netherlands Geert Wilders' anti-Islam Freedom Party came a worrying second in parliamentary elections in March.

Like Trump, Le Pen put fear and national pride front and center in her campaign. She promised to get tough on terrorism by deporting suspected jihadis and closing mosques suspected of promoting radical views. And despite levels of crime that are average by European standards—and dramatically low by American ones—Le Pen vowed to put 15,000 more police on the streets and add 40,000 prison places. (Macron has made similar promises but on a smaller scale.) She also told BBC newsnight in March that "I agree with Donald Trump when he says 'NATO is obsolete,' because NATO was created to fight the USSR."

But it was her appeal to historic French greatness that caused the most disquiet among her European neighbors. Days before the election, plagiarizing a recent speech by former conservative opponent Francois Fillion, she quoted early 20th-century French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. "Once a soldier of God, and now a soldier of Liberty, France will always be the soldier of the ideal," she told voters. Le Pen promised to turn back the forces of multiculturalism, extend a ban the Islamic headscarf (along with other overt symbols of religion, including yarmulkes) in public, and reduce immigration by 80 percent to just 10,000. In an acrimonious debate with Macron, she warned that her opponent would allow France to be crushed by the economic power of Germany and would "lie prostrate" before Berlin. "France will be led by a woman, either me or Mrs. Merkel," joked Le Pen.

The rhetoric was disturbingly reminiscent of an old, violent Europe defined by national rivalry rather than cooperation. "We are the owners of our country," she told voters in the town of Monswiller. "We must have the keys to open the house of France, to open it halfway, to close the door."

Le Pen also attacked the euro, calling it "the currency of bankers. It's not the people's currency." Macron, by contrast, is a former banker at Rothschild and a fervent advocate of the euro "not just as a policy" but as the foundation of Europe's unity. Though Le Pen backed off her Euroskepticism in the final weeks of the campaign, she stuck to her promise to hold a referendum on France's membership in the eurozone—and since it is the second-largest economy to have adopted the common currency, a French exit would have spelled the euro's death.

The problem, for France and for Europe, is that the forces of discontent that fueled Le Pen's challenge are not going to disappear. On the contrary, Macron's promise to loosen France's labor code to make it easier to hire and fire workers, cut down on massive state spending that currently accounts for 57 percent of GDP and work with the Germans to strengthen the institutions of the eurozone all point to trouble ahead. In typically truculent manner, France's powerful unions planned protests even in advance of the election result, in a show of force designed to remind the winner that public sector workers have the capacity to bring the country to a halt. Macron's predecessor, the right winger Nicolas Sarkozy, attempted a similar reform a decade ago but was thwarted by massive opposition from organized labor. France's economy is already sluggish; a fresh eurozone crisis, perhaps triggered by Italian bank defaults, could do the same to Macron's platform and discredit his Europhilia in the eyes of French voters.

The war against nationalism is far from over. A key part of Macron's appeal was that he represented no traditional party. But his lack of a political machine is also likely to be a serious liability in June's parliamentary elections, when his newly minted En Marche! party will face entrenched political veterans. In his victory speech Macron told voters that "I will need you six weeks from now" to give him "a true majority, a strong majority, a majority for change.... Europe and the world are waiting for us to defend everywhere the spirit of the Enlightenment that has come under threat in so many different places, they're expecting us to defend freedom, they're expecting us to defend the oppressed."

France's president, unlike the U.S. leader, shares executive power with the prime minister, who is chosen from whichever party controls a majority in the parliament. If En Marche! fails to win such a majority, Macron could find himself essentially paralyzed. "If this next mandate is a failure, you can be sure Marine Le Pen will win next time," journalist Anne Sinclair told French TV channel TF1.

"I am surprised that the strength of the Front Nationale…still surprises France," says Anne Nivat, whose recent best-selling book The France in Which We Live explores the country's deep social divisions. "It is not a new phenomenon that just arrived with these elections. It's nonetheless still a subject about which there is a lot of denial…. Yes, there are people who vote Front Nationale. Yes, there are problems which no-one has been able to solve. We need everybody to stop being in denial."

Le Pen's entire political career has been devoted to the dédiabolisation—"de-demonization"—of her father's party by distancing herself from the most obviously racist members of its establishment, including Jean-Marie Le Pen himself. She nearly succeeded, reaching out to marginal groups traditionally wary of the National Front such as gay people, the Jewish community and practising Catholics. She also came close to building a poll-winning alliance of the alienated, the scared and the left-behind—and was especially successful in attracting traditionally Socialist-voting members of France's working class.

Macron has also acknowledged that the old party system in France is dead. "The world changes," he told a crowd in Toulon earlier this year. The idea that "one must be right or left [is] a finished taxonomy, as if political life were a frozen species, butterflies that had to be pinned to a wall." The question remains whether that seismic shift will continue to favor Macron.

In the acrimonious April debate, Le Pen accused Macron of being an "arrogant…spoilt…cold-eyed...smirking banker" who was complacent on terrorism and intent on "butchering France" in favor of "big economic interests." This time, voters rejected her dystopic vision of a France under siege. The center, for the time being, has held. But the global insurgency by the world's have-nots is by no means over. Brexit, refugees and a slow-burning euro crisis are existential threats not only to Macron's political career but to the idea of a united Europe itself. Le Pen, and the global anti-liberal insurgency, have suffered a setback. But they have not been defeated.