Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory in the French presidential election has elicited a sigh of relief not just in his country, but in others as well. A centrist independent, the 39-year-old will be France’s youngest President, a man who not only stopped his country from sliding into the hands of far-right populists but showed the world that the anti-establishment momentum that powered the victories of the Brexit camp in the U.K. and Donald Trump in the U.S. can be broken. From the far-right perspective, France was ripe for their rise to power. There was widespread discontent among voters, particularly among the youth, with the mainstream political elite; the economy has been struggling for years; joblessness is high; there is deepening insecurity among the citizens in general in the wake of multiple terror attacks. Marine Le Pen, Mr. Macron’s rival, tried to turn this economic and social insecurity into votes for her virulent brand of politics. She attacked the Paris establishment, the European Union, economic globalisation and France’s open border policy, while being seen to be making common cause with Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the end, she was defeated on a huge margin, polling roughly 34% of the vote compared to Mr. Macron’s 66%.
Mr. Macron’s victory is remarkable in many ways. It was his first election. His party was founded just last year and, barring a brief stint as Economy Minister in outgoing President François Hollande’s Cabinet, he doesn’t have any administrative experience. Yet it is a sign of the crisis of mainstream politics that this apparent weakness became his greatest strength in a tumultuous campaign marked by sharp divisions in French society. His “outsider” tag helped him appeal to the anti-establishment segments of voters, while his status quoist proposals, be it economic or labour policy reforms or continuity in foreign policy, made him acceptable to supporters of the traditional parties. But he has only won the battle, the war lies ahead of him. Mr. Macron takes over the reins from Mr. Hollande at an extremely uncertain time. It is still not clear how many seats his political start-up En Marche! may get in next month’s parliamentary elections, which are traditionally dominated by the mainstream left and right parties. If he doesn’t get a majority, he will have to depend on other parties to push his legislative agenda through the National Assembly. And it can’t be overlooked that Ms. Le Pen’s National Front has come a long way since 2002 when her father won only 18% of the vote in the presidential run-off. The French far right is no more a fringe party, and commands considerable support among sections of the working class. Mr. Macron has to find a way of tackling this growing unrest among sections that feel marginalised; at the same time, he will have to take tough decisions to fix the economy. Failure is not an option, as the far right still has its powder dry.