France's Emmanuel Macron was a complete unknown three years ago. Today, after his win in the May presidential elections and his party's parliamentary sweep on Sunday night, he and the centrist political movement he launched – République En Marche (Republic on the Move) – can lay claim to political prodigy status.
En Marche, which was formed only 14 months ago, was on course for an absolute majority in the National Assembly, with exit polls giving it about 355 seats in the 577-seat chamber. The centre-left Socialists, which had formed the last government, and the centre-right Republicans were pushed to the sidelines.
The far left, represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the National Front, the xenophobic, anti-Europe party led by Marine Le Pen, failed to make breakthroughs even though their candidates had performed well in the first round of the presidential election, in late April.
But Mr. Macron's victory cannot be declared complete in spite of numbers that would be the envy of any president or prime minister in the Western world. His party's majority is smaller than expected and voter turnout, at about 43 per cent, the lowest on record, reduced the legitimacy of his win. In a tweet, Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who studies extreme and populist parties in Europe, said, "Macron inspires only [a] minority of French."
Some voters may have stayed home because they expected an overwhelming En Marche victory. Many others, evidently, simply did not like anything about the 39-year-old former banker or his neo-liberal agenda. The demographic groups with high no-show rates included the young, the working class and low-income earners. Mr. Macron still has to win them over.
The outcome suggests that Mr. Macron will not have carte blanche to put his reform agenda in motion and restore France's once-mighty influence in the European Union. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Germany has emerged as the continent's political and economic powerhouse.
"Voters gave him power with a pinch of salt," Brice Teinturier, head of polling at Ipsos, said on France 2 television. "This is a victory but his presidency is under surveillance. This isn't the tsunami that was expected."
Nor is the populist movement dead in France or elsewhere in Europe, though there is no doubt it has been severely wounded. The election gave the National Front eight seats in the assembly, one of them to be held by Ms. Le Pen, who was Mr. Macron's rival in the second round of presidential election. In the last National Assembly, the National Front claimed only two seats. Populism's next test is in Italy, where the ruling Democratic Party and the populist, eurosceptic Five Star Movement are roughly tied in the polls.
The French presidential and National Assembly elections stand in marked contrast to the Britain's Brexit referendum of 2016 and last week's British general election. In the former, Britain voted to leave the EU. The latter evolved into an old-fashioned, left-right clash with the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, an orthodox socialist, making strong gains, ending the majority of Theresa May's Conservatives.
In electing Mr. Macron and handing En Marche a parliamentary majority, France has endorsed a pro-EU centrist movement which declared itself "neither right nor left."
His support came from voters who had apparently grown weary of the ancient left-right divide. They also may have wanted to punish the mainstream parties who had mismanaged the economy during the crisis and recession years. France's recovery has been painfully slow, deindustrialization has hollowed out the manufacturing sector and the unemployment rate, at 9.6 per cent, is higher than the euro zone's as a whole and double that of Britain.
Where the British and French elections converged was over the central European themes of the future of Europe and immigration. British voters rejected Europe; French voters did the opposite. British voters endorsed Brexit in good part to restore full sovereignty over immigration policies; French voters took a more liberal view of immigration, even if Mr. Macron wants to reinforce the EU's external borders, hire thousands more police to fight homegrown terrorism and enshrine the state of emergency into ordinary law, which will damage French citizens' constitutional rights.
Mr. Macron is expected to concentrate on reviving the French economy before he turns his attention to propping up the European integration project, which has suffered enormous damage from Brexit, the collapse of the Greek economy and the general perception that it is powerless to thwart the terrorism threat or control immigration.
Equipped with his National Assembly majority and considerable powers in the president's office, Mr. Macron wants to change labour law to make it easier to hire and fire and to overhaul the pensions and unemployment systems. Awards under wrongful dismissal suits would be harder to achieve, much to the delight of employers.
The problem with his pro-business scenario is that French unions are strong and will oppose any jobs legislation that they consider threatening. Strikes and protests are likely, all the more so since the low voter turnout shows that Mr. Macron's popularity is not as high as his National Assembly victory suggests.