By Michael Birnbaum and Anthony Faiola
Anti-European Union leader Marine Le Pen’s larger-than-expected defeat Sunday at the hands of centrist Emmanuel Macron in France’s presidential election was a crushing reality check for the far-right forces that seek to overthrow Europe: Despite the victories for Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States, they are likely to be shut out of power for years.
Given one choice after another since Trump’s presidential victory, Western European voters have delivered mainstream candidates to office despite a post-November sense that an anti-immigrant populist wave was washing over the Western world. Far-right candidates in Austria, the Netherlands and France have faltered. The Euroskeptic far-right party in Germany has collapsed in recent polls ahead of September elections. And an unforgiving election calendar now offers few routes into power for years.
The thwarted momentum comes despite clear evidence that views that would have been taboo to express just a few years ago are no longer too toxic to exclude politicians from coming a breath away from leadership. When Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, reached a presidential runoff in 2002, his opponent refused even to debate with him, so unacceptable to the mainstream were his views.
This time, many French citizens sat out the election altogether because they detested both Le Pen and Macron – even though the pro-EU Macron offered a vastly different platform from his opponent. Le Pen’s result, about 34 percent, compared with Macron’s 66 percent, was still a historic high for her party.
“French people have chosen the continuity candidate,” a visibly disappointed Le Pen said in a brief concession address. She said she would seek to rename her National Front party, a measure of the extent to which her defeat rattled supporters who just weeks ago harbored hopes of capturing the Élysée Palace.
Instead, Le Pen’s numbers sank in the two weeks since she placed second in the first round of the French elections.
Now, the test for Europe’s future will be whether Macron can rekindle France’s relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after it languished during the five-year term of France’s current president, François Hollande, whose popularity hit record lows. If France continues to stagnate, Sunday’s victory may turn out to be a five-year reprieve from the far right rather than a decisive rejection of it.
But the failure of the far right to seize office comes in stark contrast to expectations in November that Trump’s ascendancy in the United States would unleash a global wave of populist politicians. Le Pen was one of the first leaders in the world to congratulate him on the night of his victory. Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders exulted the day after. And Trump advisers and European far-right leaders conferred in the weeks after the election.
The subsequent elections have shown a clear trend in Western Europe: Voters are sick of the mainstream and fed up with their leaders. But they are still not ready to hand power to the far right. The chaotic first months of the Trump presidency may actually have hurt Europe’s populists rather than helping them. “This is what happens when the refugee crisis doesn’t dominate the headlines anymore and the right-wing populists are dismantling themselves,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It isn’t that simple after all to break Europe apart with nationalism.”
In Central Europe, right-wing nationalist leaders are in power in Poland and Hungary. But none presents an existential challenge to the EU.
European leaders rushed to turn the page on a grim year for the bloc, embracing Macron’s victory as the first step in the rejuvenation of an embattled alliance against forces that would tear it apart.
Many mainstream leaders feared political Armageddon if Le Pen had won. In Brussels, the seat of the EU, cheers could be heard in the streets at the moment the exit polls were released Sunday evening. “The French clearly demonstrate that protest and a desire for change doesn’t always have to lead to the election of right-wing populists,” Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz wrote on Twitter.
In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany has collapsed in opinion polls in recent months after post-Trump heights. The party presided over a smaller but still telling defeat Sunday, bringing up the rear in a vote in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, as projections showed it with less than 6 percent of the vote.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union easily came out on top in the state, projected to win nearly 33 percent of the vote.
In a Sunday night phone call with Macron, Merkel “recognized his espousal of a united and open European Union in the election campaign. The decision of the French voters therefore also was a clear commitment to Europe,” said Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert.
Amid the celebration, there was acknowledgment that Macron’s victory may be just a temporary reprieve, since anti-EU forces remain powerful and growing in France. If the new French president fails to deliver on his promises by the next election in 2022, Le Pen or another anti-EU leader may return stronger than ever.
Macron hopes to soften Germany’s exacting insistence on fiscal austerity as he imposes sweeping pro-business reforms inside his own country. If he succeeds, he may help disarm anti-EU voices across the continent. But if he fails to jump-start France’s economy – and Europe’s – he will fuel questions about whether the EU is helping or hurting its citizens’ lives.
“If the mood in France and Europe is the same five years from now, it becomes impossible,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former senior Italian diplomat who now is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. "You cannot have forever a part of Europe that is growing and a part that is not.”