Emmanuel Macron’s trouncing of Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections had some suggesting the Far-Right had suffered a fatal blow, but academics believe it may well inspire a new wave of support.
In her concession speech, Front National leader Le Pen, declared her party was now the “main opposition in France” and signalled new plans to win over even more voters.
“With this massive result, the French have designated the patriotic alliance as the main force of opposition,” Le Pen said in a speech which some media suggested was triumphant in tone.
Centralist candidate, Macron, on Sunday secured 66.1% of the vote to Le Pen’s 33.9%, which was lower than earlier polling numbers had suggested she would win.
The 48-year-old lawyer ruled out stepping down as leader of the Front National party whose leadership she took over from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, but suggested the party needed to change to win over even more voters.
“The National Front ... must deeply renew itself in order to rise to the historic opportunity and meet the French people’s expectations,” she said, describing the fight as a battle between “patriots” and “globalists”.
“I will propose to start this deep transformation of our movement in order to make a new political force,” she added.
The party’s deputy leader Florian Philipott later said the new party would not be called Front National.
Matthew Goodwin, professor of political at Rutherford College, called Front National’s signalled re-branding as a “watershed moment” in which the party would try and “detoxify” its image to reach new social groups, such as the middle class, university graduates and women.
Over the next five years he predicts Front National will undertake “radical party re-building” to win-over even more voters.
Goodwin, the visiting senior fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, was reluctant to comment on what Macron’s victory meant for the far-right in France, and Europe, as “you can never predict anything in politics, especially after the tumultuous events of 2016”, but said the movement did not appear to be losing steam.
Le Pen, while only winning almost half as many votes as Macron, achieved record results for her party and much of what she had sought to achieve over the past five years.
As The Atlantic noted that Le Pen had transformed Front National from an archaic fringe party into a real contender and gained almost double the amount of votes the party got under her father’s leadership in 2002. The publication noted Le Pen had now set her party up for bigger victories in the “months and years to come”.
Goodwin said politics was becoming more “fragmented with large numbers of people having a weakening sense of loyalty”, something that could be swayed by identity issues, like immigration, globalisation and terrorism.
Dr Maryse Helbert, a researcher in French national and international politics at the University of Melbourne, said Le Pen’s defeat signalled a rejection of populist sentiments.
She told SBS World News: “It shows that while yes, there was a wave of populism in the world, starting with Donald Trump and Brexit, it hasn’t translated in other European countries.”
“This is is a good thing, it shows they’ve been able to resist it,” she added.
Helbert’s colleague, French politics expert Professor Peter McPhee, added that while there had been a rise in populist leaders across Europe in recent years, they had failed to use this momentum to take office.
However, he said, they should not be underestimated.
“In the Netherlands and Austria, they haven’t been successful, but certainly it’s been a worrying sort of cancer eating away at Europe, that you have populist right wing parties that have been so hostile to the European of providing safe sanctuary for refugees, and also, fundamentally to the whole idea of a single market, which I think has Europe has been a peaceful place for the last 70 years,” McPhee said.
While voters overwhelmingly backed Macron, he has inherited a “divided” France anxious about terrorism and chronic unemployment.
The 39-year-old has vowed to fight “the forces of division that undermine France” and told his supporters he now wants to ensure Le Pen voters “no longer have a reason to vote for an extremist position”.
“Tonight you won, France won. Everyone told us it was impossible, but they don’t know France,” he said.
Macron said he had heard “the rage, anxiety and doubt that a lot of you have expressed”, vowing to spend his five years in office “fighting the forces of division that undermine France”.
He will be sworn in this Sunday (May 14), outgoing President François Hollande has said.
Meanwhile, unions on Monday protested outside Paris’ Place de la Republique claiming pro-business Macron was a traitor for threatening blue-collar worker protections with economic reforms, the Associated Press reported.
In the Paris metro, an advertisement was defaced with the words: “Macron: Not even started, already hated.”