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Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front party, is seen on a screen at Paris’s Bois de Vincennes conceding her defeat in the country’s presidential election on Sunday.CHARLES PLATIAU/Reuters

Just a few months ago, the National Front's Marine Le Pen was riding high in French presidential polls and similar far-right populist parties were on the rise across much of Europe. But suddenly, those movements have run out of steam and even Ms. Le Pen is being forced to reconsider her party's future in the wake of a crushing defeat in Sunday's presidential election to political novice Emmanuel Macron.

To be sure, Ms. Le Pen posted the best result in the National Front's history on Sunday, taking 10.6 million votes or roughly 34 per cent of the total. But the party hoped to do far better and some insiders said Ms. Le Pen had to win 40 per cent for the election to be considered a success. The fact that she didn't come close to that figure, and that she lost all but two of France's 96 districts to Mr. Macron, has already led to soul searching within the party. Within minutes of the results being announced, Ms. Le Pen set out plans to reform the National Front and even change its name to help win support.

It's been much the same story for far-right populists elsewhere. Geert Wilders' Freedom Party didn't do nearly as well as expected in elections in the Netherlands in March. Finland's Finns Party saw its vote total cut in half in municipal elections in April and support for Alternative for Germany plunged in recent regional votes in Germany. Even Britain's UK Independence Party, which led the campaign for Brexit, was nearly wiped out in local elections last week and it's now such a non-factor the party's biggest donor said Ukip is "finished as an electoral force."

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The problem facing many of these movements is that the issues that galvanized their support have begun to ease, said Josef Janning, a senior policy fellow at the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. For example, the refugee crisis has lapsed, the economies across the euro zone are picking up and unemployment is coming down. Even Brexit is largely shrugged off in the European Union.

"I think it is primarily such dividing crises as the refugee crisis and this public perception that politics have lost control of things [that drives support]. When that is not the case, or when these crises subside, it gets much more difficult," Mr. Janning said. "The far right has no attractive ideology of its own that extends beyond its own constituency. In order to win big, they have to go well beyond their core constituency."

However, he and others say it would be wrong to read too much into the current decline of right-wing populism or assume these parties will fall away.

"They've probably peaked, but they are here to stay," said Dorit Geva, an associate professor at the Central European University in Hungary who studies the National Front and other far-right groups. "These movements are probably not going to attract a lot more followers but they have made major inroads and they are going to become a permanent feature of the political scene for the immediate future and probably midterm future."

She added that the National Front could win up to 50 seats in next month's elections to France's 577-seat National Assembly, a vast improvement on the meagre two seats the party currently holds. That would give it more legitimacy in the eyes of many voters.

European officials have largely celebrated Mr. Macron's victory as a further sign that the EU is turning back the tide of anti-bloc sentiment. But there is cause for concern. For starters, the voter turnout in Sunday's election was 75 per cent, the lowest for a presidential vote since 1969. And the percentage of spoiled ballots was a record 11 per cent. Opinion polls also indicate that 43 per cent of Mr. Macron's support came from voters who didn't necessarily support him but wanted to block Ms. Le Pen. So while Mr. Macron can claim an impressive victory, his support is soft and people could quickly turn if he fails to deliver.

"I think that the worst idea for the EU would be to say, 'everything is going okay, we have defeated the populists,'" said Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst at the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. "I think this would be terribly wrong because obviously a very significant segment of the population wants to tell Brussels that something is going wrong with the way they rule the EU. More and more people feel alienated with economic policies of the EU."

Ms. Le Pen has spent years trying to capitalize on the alienation and expand the National Front's base. Since taking over the party leadership from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011, she has toned down the National Front's positions on issues such as capital punishment and abortion. She even expelled her father from the movement, recognizing that his anti-Semitic and, at times, racist views hurt the party. During the presidential campaign, she highlighted economic and trade issues and even couched her anti-immigration stand in terms of protecting jobs for the French. She also formed an alliance with another Euroskeptic party called Debout la France, or Stand Up France, in a bid to expand the National Front's appeal.

But while she vastly increased the party's vote total on Sunday, more than two-thirds of the country rejected her vision. She's now faced with the challenge of trying to further broaden the party's appeal without upsetting its core support.

That's no easy task and one of her key challengers will likely be her niece, 27-year old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is a National Front MP and has close ties to the traditional wing of the party. Ms. Maréchal-Le Pen has already signalled her disappointment in the campaign and added: "We will have to reflect on the positives and negatives of the campaign." She also said any changes to party policy will have to be approved by party members at a conference next year.

"The knives will be out within the National Front and there are going to be some very serious leadership contests and ideological battles," Prof. Geva said. She added that the party also faces a challenge on the far left from La France insoumise, or Unsubmissive France, a movement led by firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has captured the imagination of young voters with his anti-EU rhetoric and similar protectionist positions.

"It's unchartered waters for the National Front," she added. "It's very difficult to comprehend what would be the future of the National Front at this moment."

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