PARIS: The populist tsunami that slammed into Britain last year, before sweeping across the Atlantic to the United States, may have faded on the shores of France on Sunday. Despite a strong performance from far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the first round of France’s presidential election, the bigger news was the success of Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist who rode to victory with a counter-intuitive campaign that embraced globalization, immigration and the European Union. The polls suggest Macron will beat Le Pen soundly in the second-round runoff on May 7. If he does, it could open the door to more ambitious reforms of the French economy and an elusive compromise with Germany on overhauling the troubled euro zone. Just 39 years old and with only four years of political experience under his belt, Macron represents a generational change and a break from the left-right divide that has defined French politics for over half a century. He would face formidable challenges as president. Nearly half of French voters opted for candidates on the extreme right and left of the political spectrum. These people are unlikely to embrace Macron’s liberal democratic vision, leaving France a deeply divided nation.
A president Macron could also struggle to cobble together a centrist majority in parliament after legislative elections in June. But after Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, Macron’s first-round victory – which comes after setbacks for far-right politicians in Austria, the Netherlands and Germany in recent months – shows that the political center is holding in the heart of Europe. “It looks as though populism is in retreat in Europe,” said Iain Begg of the London School of Economics. Macron was the only candidate among the four frontrunners who embraced the idea of closer European integration during the campaign. Le Pen and hard-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon were openly hostile, floating the idea of a French exit from the EU. And conservative Francois Fillon, in the Gaullist tradition, spoke mainly about boosting France’s influence in Europe. At the post-election party at Porte de Versailles in the south of Paris, Macron supporters waved both French and EU flags. His victory was hailed from Brussels to Berlin on Sunday evening. “Great for Europe” said German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who worked with Macron on ideas for reforming the European Union when both were economy ministers.