French voters turned away from Brexit-style populism and elected a staunchly pro-Europe President with a mandate to change the country and the continent.

Early returns showed political novice Emmanuel Macron winning 65 per cent in Sunday’s second round of voting, a larger victory than most opinion polls predicted. He now becomes the youngest President in French history, at the age of 39, and he upended decades of political tradition by winning without the backing of any traditional political party.

For far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front, the result was worse than many party insiders expected, raising questions about her future and the party’s direction.

However, she still took just over one-third of the vote, the best showing in history for the National Front and an indication that her populist campaign against the European Union, immigration and globalization resonated across much of the country.

Shortly after the early results were announced, Mr. Macron stepped on to a giant stage in front of the Louvre Museum in central Paris to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the official anthem of the European Union.

“What we have done is unprecedented and unequalled,” he told thousands of cheering supporters. “Everyone said it wasn’t possible but they don’t understand France.”

He acknowledged those who supported Ms. Le Pen, saying he understood their anger and lack of hope.

“I respect them,” he said. “And I will do everything in the five years ahead so that they have no reason to vote for the extremes again.”

And in a nod to Europe, Mr. Macron promised “to work to recreate the link between Europe and its peoples, between Europe and citizens.”

His victory will be welcomed with relief among EU officials who have been coping with Britain’s departure and a rising wave of anti-EU sentiment. He’d been endorsed by several EU leaders in recent weeks, including the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

And in the crowd of supporters at the Louvre, many said they voted for Mr. Macron because of his strong commitment to Europe. “He will take the lead in Europe,” said François Morin, a 39-year old businessman who showed up to the plaza with a French and EU flag. “We need someone who stands up for Europe. Europe protects our rights and it’s important for our economy.”

Added 22-year old Harfaoui Hind: “Europe can’t go on without France, because France makes Europe.” Ms. Hind added that she hoped the country would come together after what has been a bruising presidential election campaign. “It’s like a car accident. We just had a car accident but we are alive. Maybe we are hurt but we are alive and when you are alive, you have to fight,” she said.

Mr. Macron’s rise to power has been nothing short of remarkable. He’d never run for elected office and only started his political movement, called En Marche! – or On the Move – a year ago, vowing to be “neither right nor left.” He spent months campaigning as an outsider, slowly rising in opinion polls as voters became increasingly disenchanted with the candidates from the traditional governing parties, the Socialists and Republicans.

The breakdown of established voting lines played into the hands of both Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen, who finished first and second, respectively, in the first round of voting last month. But in the final head-to-head showdown, Ms. Le Pen faltered. Her aggressive campaigning turned off voters and she couldn’t properly explain the National Front’s economic policies, which included pulling out of the EU, dropping the euro and ramping up government spending.

Mr. Macron, by contrast, offered a more measured approach, promising to balance government cuts and changes to labour laws with improvements to social programs. He was also alone among the 11 presidential candidates to adamantly back the EU and globalization, insisting that France simply can’t go it alone in the world and confront the economic power of China and the United States.

“In this current environment, France is not the right scale,” he said during a meeting with reporters in London earlier this year. The collective heft of the EU gives France international clout that it wouldn’t have on its own, he added. And while he acknowledged that the EU must change, he made no apologies for endorsing many of the bloc’s key features, including open borders. “If you are shy, you are dead in this current environment,” he said bluntly.

“He will be the first seriously pro-European President since we had [François] Mitterrand in the 1980s,” said Charles Wyplosz, a French economist who is director of the International Center for Monetary and Banking Studies in Geneva.

Mr. Macron has already indicated that one of his top priorities will be to re-establish the Franco-German relationship that has long been the cornerstone of the EU and the euro zone, the 19 countries that use the euro. That bond has weakened in recent years, as France’s economy has stalled since the 2008 financial crisis while Germany’s has recovered and roared ahead. Now, with Brexit and Europe facing a multitude of challenges, from immigration to terrorism, Mr. Macron wants France and Germany to forge common positions. But it won’t be easy.

“So far, he’s remained very much wedded to the traditional French positions that are a non-starter in Germany,” Prof. Wyplosz said. Those positions encompass further integration, including creating a kind of euro-zone government with a finance minister to co-ordinate fiscal policy and harmonize welfare programs. “That’s really the transfer of sovereignty, and nobody is ready for that,” he said, adding that Mr. Macron will have more credibility with the Germans if he fixes France’s economy first.

Enacting those domestic changes won’t be simple. Mr. Macron lacks a political base and En Marche! could have trouble winning seats in parliamentary elections next month. Without a majority in the 577-seat National Assembly, he’ll have a tough time carrying out his agenda.

Mr. Macron has some advantages. He comes to power as the economy is beginning to turn around. And while unemployment remains stubbornly high, at around 10 per cent, it’s starting to come down and business confidence is rising.

“In the short term, there are more opportunities than challenges,” said French economist Nicolas Véron, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank. “Of course, he is such a newcomer to French politics, you can also imagine scenarios in which he would become unpopular very quickly. But I wouldn’t say he’s in firefighting mode the day he takes over.”

Mr. Véron added that France’s problems are more structural than immediate, such as tackling the rigid labour market and addressing chronic government overspending.

Political scientist Nicole Bacharan said Mr. Macron’s biggest challenge will be creating jobs. “That has been a failure year after year. That’s the No.1 challenge, to be able to implement reforms efficiently and fast enough,” said Prof. Bacharan, who lectures at Sciences Po University in Paris.

And if he fails, the French will be quick to let him know, she added. After the presidential and parliamentary elections “there will be what the French love to call ‘the third round,’ which is in the streets; strikes and blockages of every kind by people who will consider that he doesn’t have a mandate.”

Ms. Le Pen has already vowed to form a kind of opposition to Mr. Macron. On Sunday, she switched her focus to the parliamentary elections, urging her supporters to help turn her party into “the leading opposition force against the new President’s plans.”

“I call on all patriots to join us,” she said. “France will need you more than ever in the months ahead.”

PARIS — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, May 07, 2017 8:19AM EDT
Last updated Sunday, May 07, 2017 10:15PM EDT