BRUSSELS — As French President-elect Emmanuel Macron strode to his victory rally to the tune of the European Union’s anthem, E.U. advocates could scarcely believe their luck: The next French leader had scored an emphatic win embracing a partnership loathed by populist voters across the continent.
His opponent, Euroskeptic Marine Le Pen, could have shattered the European Union, already hit hard by Britain’s decision to file for divorce. Now, though, the E.U. has a new lease on life, as Macron and other pro-European leaders ready what could be a make-or-break reform effort for a bloc that has suffered repeated blows since the Great Recession in late 2007.
The dramatic turnabout serves as a rejoinder to President Trump, who has questioned the E.U.’s value and embraced nationalists around the world. And it is likely to complicate Britain’s exit negotiations, providing a boost to the representatives of the 27 nations who will sit down later this year with Prime Minister Theresa May to hash out terms.
Macron “bears the hopes of millions of French people, but also of many people in Germany and the whole of Europe,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters Monday. “He led a courageous, pro-European campaign. He stands for openness to the world.”
Macron now faces June legislative elections that will determine his mandate for sweeping reforms in France; if he fails to garner support, his victory Sunday could also prove to be just a temporary reprieve for the E.U. The magnitude of his win — 66 percent of the vote — is offset by many citizens appearing to have voted to keep Le Pen out, not because they embraced Macron’s centrist vision.
Still, it marked a rare achievement for a candidate who had campaigned on the promise that France could flex its sovereign power through the European Union, rather than in tension with it. Even nominally pro-E.U. leaders such as center-right Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte have more typically vowed to protect their citizens from E.U. overreach — hardly a message that would rejuvenate the beleaguered bloc.
Macron’s win “could lead to a restrengthening of the European Union as a capable actor,” said Sabine von Oppeln, a professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin. “The European Union got away with a black eye. . . . Now it has to do something with the election result.”
Macron has outlined an ambitious agenda that would knit together the countries that use the euro currency, through a common euro-zone budget and finance minister. He has pushed for a new European unemployment-insurance system, which would mean German taxpayers would underwrite out-of-work Greeks. But he also has expressed support for a buy-European-first rule for government purchasing, a protectionist measure that could cheer nationalists.
Any new effort will require quick action, given the challenges that abound. Greece’s economy remains moribund. And the Italian populist Five Star Movement — currently topping the polls ahead of elections that will take place by spring 2018 — threatens to hold a referendum on Italy’s use of the euro, a move that could rekindle Europe’s financial crisis.
“Most people realize that the euro zone, as it is, is not sustainable. A new crisis will come,” said Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat who is a fellow at Carnegie Europe, a think tank.
Now the focus will shift to Berlin, whose cooperation is vital to any French effort to alter the way Europe works. To secure German flexibility, Macron will first need to prove he is serious about trying to push through the kind of free-market labor and business reforms that economists say are needed to jump-start the French economy and improve the investment climate there.
“The prospects of actually advancing, if France has stronger credibility in the eyes of the Berlin policy community, is pretty good,” said Guntram Wolff, the director of Bruegel, a Brussels-based policy think tank.
Indeed, the next major test for Europe is Germany’s September elections, in which the staunchly pro-E.U. Merkel is seeking a fourth term. Unlike the cliffhanger in France, however, the outcome is set to be a win-win for Macron, as well as for the bloc. Merkel’s closest rival, the Social Democrat Martin Schulz, served as president of the European Parliament until last year, and he is likely to be far more flexible than Merkel on demands from across the bloc to finally ease the German-backed policy of austerity that some blame for the region’s economic stagnation.
In addition, analysts say, a weak showing by the far-right Alternative for Germany party, currently slipping in the polls, could embolden Merkel to cooperate more closely with Macron and other E.U. leaders who are pressing for an end to the age of austerity.
“It would free Angela Merkel to be more forthcoming in proposing a more centrist agenda for Europe,” said Cornelius Adebahr, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “That could mean more investment and more integration in the euro zone.”
Macron’s victory also comes as a jolt to British leaders negotiating their departure from the E.U., who have counted on European disunity as their best path to winning a good deal. Macron has called Brexit a “crime” and vowed to be tough on London, even though his victory is probably better for Britain than Le Pen’s would have been. Had she won, the country could well have faced a chaotic rupture rather than an orderly exit.
The Daily Telegraph, a right-leaning British newspaper, on Monday ran a front-page headline saying that “France’s new hope puts cloud over Brexit.”
May, who is fighting her own election battle, was quick to congratulate Macron on Sunday night. But in a campaign rally Monday, she warned that the French leader’s victory means that she too needs a decisive mandate in the June 8 vote to bargain with Europe.
“Yesterday a new French president was elected,” May said at a campaign speech in London. “He was elected with a strong mandate, which he can take as a strong position in the negotiations. The U.K., we need to ensure we’ve got an equally strong mandate and equally strong negotiating position.”
Faiola reported from Berlin. Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.