French National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen. Picture REUTERS/PHILIPPE WOJAZER
French National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen. Picture REUTERS/PHILIPPE WOJAZER

Vienna — After Austria and the Netherlands, the defeat of France’s Marine Le Pen in a presidential run-off is a new blow for the European far right but its march to power is far from over, analysts warn.

Victory appeared tantalisingly close for Le Pen, who had hoped to finish on Sunday what her father had failed to achieve in 2002: win the second round and save "the French civilisation" from the clutches of globalisation.

Her campaign tapped into fears over high unemployment, immigration and the rising threat of jihadist terror attacks.

But Le Pen’s intention to leave the eurozone proved a red flag to many and the presidential crown went to the pro-EU Emmanuel Macron, who bagged 66% of the vote against Le Pen’s 34%. It is the third setback for Europe’s far right in six months.

In December, Austrian Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) narrowly failed to win a presidential rerun vote. This was followed by the defeat in March of anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders in Dutch elections.

But some analysts said these are just stumbling blocks for the far right, which has been buoyed by Britain’s decision to quit the EU and President Donald Trump’s win in the US.

Far-right movements "exert their influence not by governing, but by constraining the room for manoeuvre for centrist parties", said Carsten Nickel of the Teneo think-tank in Brussels.

"We can’t talk of a bad year for the far right. In Austria, Hofer got close to 50%. In the Dutch case, the traditional centre-left has been completely wiped out and Geert Wilders is a serious player in parliament."

Wilders’ Freedom Party gained five seats in March, making it the second-largest party in the country.

And while Macron’s win against Le Pen was "a good result", it is "much weaker" than the crushing defeat suffered by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, at the hands of Jacques Chirac in 2002, Nickel said.

In fact, Sunday’s result was the highest-ever score in a presidential election in the Front National’s 44-year history.

In her concession speech, Le Pen hailed the Front National as France’s main opposition player and proclaimed a new faultline had been drawn "between patriots and globalists".

"Let’s not fool ourselves: the score shows that ... there is a real desire for far-right extremism in the population," French historian Nicolas Lebourg told French newspaper Liberation.

Le Pen’s European allies also struck an optimistic tone.

"Well done anyway, millions of patriots voted for you! You will win — and so will I," Wilders told Le Pen in a tweet. "Thanks Le Pen, those who fight never lose," Matteo Salvini of Italy’s far-right Northern League wrote in a Facebook post.

In Austria, FPOe leader Heinz-Christan Strache said the result paved the way for another "historic" success in France’s parliamentary elections in June.

The FPOe itself is riding high in opinion polls and hopes to win parliamentary elections due in late 2018.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat, cautioned that Macron’s win was merely a "stage victory".

"Le Pen still took more than a third of the votes cast and the consensus is that she will be a far more significant force come 2022 if France follows its current economic trajectory," London-based economic analyst Peter Ashton said.


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