Liberal Europeans breathed a sigh of relief when, as expected, Emmanuel Macron was confirmed as the new president of France on Sunday evening. The 39-year-old political novice has never before held elected office yet now finds himself days away from taking hold of the reins in mainland Europe's second most populous nation. Against the odds, he swept aside the candidates from the country's two traditional parties before defeating the far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen in the second round, with over 66% of voters backing the unapologetically pro-EU and socially liberal former investment banker to take power in a deeply fractured and divided country.
For some, such a comprehensive victory is seen as heralding the beginning of a new era of dominance for what has been termed the "progressive centre". Macron, they argue, has shown the way to hold back the populist tide and defeat quasi-fascist bigotry, and his crushing defeat of Le Pen has thus highlighted the far-right's limitations and struggles in its quest for power in Western Europe. Such talk is premature, though, for whilst Macron may have won the battle against the far-right, the war has only just begun.
In the 15 years since Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, shocked the country by reaching the second round run-off alongside centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac, her Front National party have become an ever-present force in French politics. Not only did she increase her first round share of the vote by almost 1.3 million votes, she also managed to claim over 10.6 million votes in the subsequent run-off, almost double the figure achieved by her father in 2002. Whereas Chirac comfortably won almost five times as many votes as Jean-Marie, Marine's ability to secure half as many as her competitor showed just how much the French far-right has grown in recent years.
This continuous increase has been a fundamental feature of French politics since the 1980s, and, despite Macron's victory on Sunday, it shows no signs of ending any time soon. Since Le Pen took control of Front National six years ago, they have managed to make gains in every subsequent election as voters on both the left and right abandon the two traditional parties. 2012's legislative elections saw them increase their share of the vote by over 9%, earning the party two seats in the National Assembly for the first time since the country's flirtation with proportional representation in 1986. Current polling for next month's legislative elections has them on 21%, narrowly behind both Les Républicains and En Marche! and on course for major gains once again.
Front National insiders have stated that they are targeting a return of 40 MPs, a sizeable number that would not only represent another impressive result for the far-right party but could deny the parliamentary majority that Macron desperately needs to help bring his agenda to life. Cohabitation, where the president is from a different party to the majority of members in the National Assembly, has only happened three times in France, and not since 2002, but an increasingly fractured political landscape means a fourth period is a real possibility.
Whilst he and his supporters were clearly in a buoyant mood on Sunday evening, Macron's task is now an incredibly tough one. En Marche!, the centrist movement he launched in April 2016, have only a month in which they must convince voters to further dispense with the two traditional parties and vote for a brand new entity. Clearly smelling an opportunity, Front National are now well positioned to thwart Macron's attempts to govern effectively, knowing all too well that a divided and ineffectual political system can only help their chances of further solidifying their popularity amongst their increasingly strong supporter base.
For whilst the French electorate has proven itself adept at rallying behind alternative candidates when faced with the possibility of Front National gaining any sort of sizeable power, the far-right party are continuing to make gains across the country that will not be easily wiped out. Areas like Pas-de-Calais and Aisne, the only two departments in which Le Pen won a majority of the vote in Sunday's second round, as well as Meuse and Oise, have now returned impressive results for Front National in five consecutive domestic and European elections, with each proving to be strongholds for the party in the 2015 department elections before overwhelmingly backing Le Pen in the first round of voting last month. Apathy towards the ruling Socialist Party, whose share of the vote dropped to an embarrassingly low 6.36% in this year's presidential election, has resulted in many of its previously steadfast supporters switching en masse to Front National, severely denting the centre-left's chances of returning to power any time soon whilst simultaneously handing the far-right an increasingly dedicated support base on which it can now count for a multitude of votes. As has been the case across Western Europe, social democracy's collapse has directly benefitted the populist right, and it is a trend that is unlikely to end any time soon.
The onus is now firmly on Macron to deliver the promises he made to the electorate during a deeply divisive election campaign. If he cannot, he runs the risk of increasing the anger and disillusionment felt by large swathes of voters on both the left and right of the political spectrum, with the latter group feeling emboldened by Front National's continued growth in support. A period of cohabitation with what could very well be a Républicains prime minister would not only be a major setback for Macron but also represent a further opportunity to grow for the French far-right. Le Pen may have been defeated in Sunday's presidential election, but Front National and their increasingly loyal supporters are only getting started.