A heavy sigh of relief could be heard in Brussels and across most Western capitals on Sunday after Emmanuel Macron won France's second round of voting. Had his opponent Marine Le Pen become France's next president, the beleaguered European Union might have taken a fatal nosedive into oblivion, further disrupting the international order.
So there's a reprieve, but possibly just that. Mr. Macron faces formidable challenges, and a failure to meet the high bar he has set for himself could have far-reaching consequences. He's a man of clear talent and mind-boggling ambition. But for now he's a one-man show. And without a strong party structure, and without winning a majority in the June parliamentary elections, his bold promises may prove elusive.
Mr. Macron has said, for example, that he wants to restore the credibility of France in the eyes of Germany by building an active investment policy. A good idea, if he can pull it off in a country with a history of anti-capitalist politics. He wants to reform French labour laws that have included addictive entitlements to generations of workers; his predecessor François Hollande tried this and finished with a 4-per-cent approval rating. He wants to rebuild the "European dream" that has failed a generation of the young.
All laudable and reassuring goals. But there's a pie-in-the-sky feel to Mr. Macron's policies. After decades of centralized power, including pushing small states such as Greece around, will the Brussels bureaucrats heed his call? Is it not risky to base domestic promises on change in a jurisdiction that's beyond one's control?
His promise to help the large underclass of Muslims who live in the squalid banlieues of France's urban metropolises will be one of his most important undertakings. Racism, prejudice and a historical rejection of multiculturalism have meant that generations of Arabs with non-French names have received an inferior education and lacked access to the middle class.
They've been at the bull's eye of Ms. Le Pen's National Front for 40 years, and the party's message of exclusion has been hardened by the recent wave of terror attacks. Mr. Macron's courageous intent to help integrate this population has the potential to alter this discourse incrementally.
His most difficult task may be what he calls "reconciliation." It is telling that neither of the two run-off candidates represented French politics as usual. Rather, they personified a schism that has divided France for centuries. As the 19th-century agrarian order was overtaken by industry and the unprecedented role of money, traditionalists clung fiercely to their age-old customs, including top-down authority and fear of "the other," especially the Jews who were identified with modernity. In summoning time-worn fears, Marine Le Pen has embodied this "nation" whose 20th-century landmarks were racism and internecine violence: from Alfred Dreyfus, to civil conflict in the 1930s, to Marshal Philippe Pétain and Vichy, to the colonial war in Algeria.
Mr. Macron incarnates the other nation that has historically identified itself with the revolutionary creed of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, the League for the Rights of Man (created in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair that brutally exposed the schism), and with Enlightenment values of progress and tolerance.
Although this rupture has occasionally disappeared from sight or been partially conflated (for example, most French today claim to be the inheritors of the Revolution), this is the deep context within which the vitriolic election took place. The campaign reopened a Pandora's box of unhealed national wounds stemming from France's wartime complicity with genocide and its colonial war in Algeria.
At a personal level, Mr. Macron is an unfamiliar entity. He's a technocrat: a liberal, pragmatic internationalist who believes in multiculturalism – all characteristics that may be more familiar to Canadians than to the French. The latter elected him because he epitomizes democratic hope – and especially because he was not Ms. Le Pen.
Ms. Le Pen's last pre-election photo op at the cathedral of Reims was meant to convey a dual vision of Joan of Arc saving France and the crowning of the Dauphin – that is, herself. Unfortunately she was pelted with eggs, somewhat diminishing the magisterial moment.
But no one should dismiss the growing appeal of the National Front. Should president Macron slip, Ms. Le Pen will be waiting hungrily in the wings.
Erna Paris has written widely about French cultural history and politics. She is the author of Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair.