For the second time in a row, Emmanuel Macron emerged victorious against his far-right rival Marine Le Pen in what was a tighter contest than their one five years ago. But Le Pen didn’t sound defeated. In her concession speech last night, she praised the results, her best electoral performance to date, as a “resounding victory” and suggested that this election would not mark the end of her political career. “In this defeat,” she told supporters, “I cannot help but feel a sense of hope.”
That feeling isn’t wholly unfounded. Macron’s decisive victory notwithstanding, Le Pen is not walking away empty-handed. In a little more than a decade, she has succeeded in transforming her party, the National Rally (formerly the National Front), from a toxic fringe group to one of the most significant players in French politics. She has advanced to the presidential runoff twice, but perhaps most significant of all, she has normalized her far-right politics on Islam and immigration and has forced her mainstream opponents—Macron among them—to engage with, and in some cases even appropriate, her views.
This isn’t victory in the traditional sense, but it isn’t defeat either. The staying power of populist and nationalist groups across Europe has shown that these forces don’t necessarily need to win elections in order to see their aims through. From Britain to Germany, they have proved just as capable of influencing politics from the sidelines, and sometimes even getting mainstream parties to do their work for them.
It’s not that being in mainstream politics hasn’t changed Le Pen. The far-right leader has spent the past several years trying to broaden her party’s image by softening its extremist edges, a detoxification process that has involved changing its name, expelling her father, and reprioritizing its agenda to focus more on bread-and-butter issues such as the rising cost of living and social-welfare protections (the party’s more traditional views, including its nativism and Islamophobia, remain as extreme as ever). She also appears more moderate than she once did by comparison with the far-right TV pundit Éric Zemmour, who campaigned as an ultranationalist.
But the other reason Le Pen appears more moderate than before is that the country’s moderate parties more closely resemble her own. In Macron’s 2017 victory speech, he pledged to spend his first term doing everything he could to ensure that French voters would “no longer have any reason to vote for the extremes.” In practice, however, this has meant pivoting to the right on issues such as immigration, security, and national identity, and occasionally parroting far-right talking points. New laws aimed at curbing terrorism and extremism afforded the government greater powers to track religious groups and close houses of worship. This rightward shift was intentional. In an interview last year with the Financial Times, Macron’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin, who once accused Le Pen of having “gone soft” on Islam, argued that courting Le Pen’s voters would be essential to preventing her from taking more votes.
If last night’s results are any indication, that strategy hasn’t worked. In 2017, Macron could count on French citizens to vote en masse to block the far right’s ascendance, just as they had done in 2002 when the elder Le Pen was decisively defeated by Jacques Chirac in the second round of voting. Although this so-called Republican front didn’t completely disappear (all of the other presidential candidates, save for Zemmour and the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, urged voters to back Macron), it is considerably weaker than it once was. Yesterday, roughly 41 percent of the French electorate cast their vote for the far right, a notable increase from the 33 percent that did so in 2017. Seventeen points separated Le Pen from the presidency—a markedly closer margin than those previously experienced by herself and her father (both of whom have lost in the second round by more than 30- and 60-point margins, respectively). More than a quarter of the electorate chose not to vote at all.
Even when Macron combats Le Pen’s far-right policies, he is nevertheless arguing on her turf. Rarely a month goes by in France, for example, “without a debate on the headscarf,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a legal scholar and researcher at the University Toulouse-Capitole, in France, told me. The topic featured heavily in the final days of the campaign, as Macron sought to leverage Le Pen’s pledge to ban the hijab in public spaces in a last-ditch bid to woo disaffected voters on the left who opposed the proposal.
This kind of far-right normalization is not unique to France. Across Europe, nationalist and populist parties have demonstrated just how powerful they can be without winning power. In Britain, arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage has emerged as perhaps one of the most influential British politicians in decades despite having never once held a seat in Parliament: He succeeded in elevating the issue of Britain’s European Union membership into the mainstream and forced British leaders to hold a referendum they didn’t want in order to achieve a goal that no one believed could actually happen. While his personal political career has been one of repeat failures, ideologically he has achieved resounding success.
The same can be said of the far-right Alternative for Germany, which, despite being treated as persona non grata in the Bundestag, has emerged as an established presence in German politics. Though the party claimed only 10 percent of the vote in the last election (a dip from its historic 2017 success), its influence has proved demonstrably greater. On wedge issues such as immigration, the party has succeeded in breaking taboos and testing the limits of acceptable political discourse in the country. In both Britain and Germany, mainstream politicians have adopted and, in effect, mainstreamed more hard-line rhetoric on immigration in an apparent attempt to stem their country’s respective populist and nationalist waves.
Le Pen didn’t win this time, but if her own success and that of other far-right parties across Europe are any indication, she didn’t need to. As long as she remains a frontline political figure, and as long as mainstream parties continue to court her supporters, she and her party will continue to hold considerable sway over French politics.
“If we face the same situation in five years in the second round, then it’s very, very possible that Marine Le Pen or someone else from her party could be elected,” Mathieu Gallard, the research director at the French polling firm Ipsos, told me. Until then, she can claim a different kind of victory.