Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

A damned close-run thing this was not. Sixty four years after Charles de Gaulle brought it into being, the Vème Republique Française stands. Emanuel Macron cruised to a 17 point victory in his second-round run off against Marine Le Pen. Three times Le Pens have reached the second round of French presidential elections – and three times they have lost. 

Macron, the first president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac, has won five more years in the Elysée Palace, and is set fair to win a majority in June’s parliamentary elections. 

The great feature of France’s two-round electoral system is that is separates the expressive and practical sides of voting. In the first round you vote for the candidate you like best. In the second, you vote against the one you hate the most. 

One interpretation of the first round result, favoured on France’s equivalent of the Corbynite left, is that 45 per cent of French people voted for extremist candidates, that the Republic is in peril, and that does not deserve to be saved by an ex-Rothschild banker.

Another, favoured by self-described national conservatives, is that French liberalism is on the ropes, and one more heave will remove the aforementioned ‘globalist’ banker from office, and replace him with a lady whose banker sits in the Kremlin.

Neither of these is quite right: the real story is the resurgence of France’s powerful, but overlooked postwar centrist tradition. France’s main centre-right and centre-left blocs, that Gaullists (their parties’ names change too frequently to use their official titles) and the Socialists, have done well when they have been able to merge their core support with centrist sympathisers.

That was how Jacques Chirac and second-term François Miterrand dominated the political scene. But in the absence of such a figure, the old parties struggled to hold their vote together. 

Neither Nicholas Sarkozy, who veered to the right, nor François Hollande, who veered to the hapless, could hang on to that part of the electorate who valued competence. Macron, like, Valery Giscard D’Estaing before him, has made this block his core vote.

The difference is that while Giscard faced a weak centre-right (during the 1970s, when he became President) and a weak centre-left (in the 1990s, when his party won 207 seats in the National Assembly), Macron has the advantage of both main forces imploding. 

If in 2017, the socialists picked a terrible candidate, and the centre-right’s François Fillon was felled by scandal, then this time Macron scooped up almost all centrist votes for himself, with the main Socialist and Gaullist candidates facing the French equivalent of lost deposits.

This is not however to say that the centre-left or centre-right cannot revive, just as they did in 1995, when French voters choose Chirac ahead of Lionel Jospin, and Giscard’s UDF was nowhere to be seen.  Rather, De Gaulle’s system allows France to balance between two different equilibria: a left-right axis, or what we might call an establishment-insurgent axis.

It’s extremely rare for an insurgent to break through in France (Mitterand’s first term, where he promised radical left-wing policies before abandoning them as unfeasible, is an exception).  Had a few hundred thousand first round votes  gone differently, and Melenchon’s and Le Pen’s totals been swapped, millions of Le Pen voters would have held their noses and voted for Macron, just as millions of Melenchon voters fact did.

This leaves Macron’s opponents, on both the left and the right, in a dilemma. This time, Le Pen went as far to the centre as she could have. A little further, and she would have lost more votes to Eric Zemmour or Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, depriving her of the second round place.  A post-Mélenchon Socialist candidate, who could reassure the centre while keeping enough of the hard-left onside, or a centre-right candidate who did not have to compete with Macron, might fare better.

Macron, for his part, will try and cement his centrist hegemony, which is defined by laicisme (a hard line secularism that evolved from anticlericalism to anti-Islamism), pro-Europeanism and economic pragmatism. Despite the pandemic, unemployment in France has fallen to seven per cent (it was above ten per cent during Hollande’s time) and growth as resumed following the lockdowns.

The main EU member states have pro-European leaders now. Expect a push for ‘more Europe’. Defence and security will pose a quandary for the French: the strong European role they want requires them to give up the relative ambivalence towards Russia they have displayed for decades. The war should have cleared this dilemma up, but France, like Germany, has not yet fully absorbed the extent of change needed. 

Understanding France in the next five years means coming to terms with the fact that France is, as centrist analyst Julien Hoez puts it with undisguised satisfaction “a far more politically liberal country than many believe.” If Macron can win a parliamentary majority in June, he will be able to cement centrism in France and across Europe where Giscard d’Estaing, who lost to Mitterand, and whose  European Constitution was rejected by the voters, could not.