It's possible that Macron could reshape what French progressivism stands for to focus on issues of cosmopolitanism and globalism rather than support for a strong welfare state, much like America's Bill Clinton and the United Kingdom's Tony Blair did with their own center-left parties in the 1990s as part of the "Third Way" movement. However, by forming a separate party from the Socialists, Macron might yet chart a different course by allying more closely with dissident conservatives, and it remains to be seen just what policy agenda he will actually be able to accomplish.
So how did France get here, and what comes next? We'll detail all this and much more below.
French politics have long been dominated by the center-left Socialists and various center-right "Gaullist" parties that were modeled on the conservative ideals of Charles de Gaulle, who was president from 1959 to 1969 and a key World War II leader before that. However, the Macron-Le Pen matchup was the first time in the Fifth Republic that both the center-left and center-right failed to make a presidential runoff.
This shakeup of the party system came about for two key reasons. First, incumbent President François Hollande's five years of unified rule under the Socialists have been so disastrous that he has become the most unpopular president in the country's modern history. Austere fiscal policy that failed to resolve France's chronic high unemployment, pro-market labor reforms that angered his working-class and leftist base, the Europe-wide refugee crisis, and repeated horrific terror attacks all combined to leave Hollande with an approval rating near single digits.
Mercifully, Hollande announced he would not run again late last year, and one of his top anti-austerity critics, former education minister Benoît Hamon, won the Socialist nomination in a rebuke to Hollande. However, the Socialists faced mass defections from both the left and the center, with radical-left stalwart Jean-Luc Mélenchon once again running under a separate banner, while Macron decided to launch his own party to run toward the center.
France holds a runoff between the top two finishers if no one wins a majority in the first round. Consequently, the Socialists' implosion and the left's division among three major candidates—Mélenchon, Hamon, and Macron—should have been a massive boon to mainstream conservatives. Indeed, polls for much of the race showed the nominee of the center-right Republicans party, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, making the runoff against Le Pen and handily trouncing her in the second round, while the left would get entirely shut out.
However, the second major reason why the French party system completely shook up is that the Republicans suffered a catastrophe when their nominee, Fillon, became embroiled in a major embezzlement scandal shortly after winning the party's nomination over a much more moderate candidate. Fillon openly likened himself to Margaret Thatcher and could have been the most right-wing French president in the modern era had he made it to the runoff against Le Pen, but his stench of corruption around him was so strong that many in his own party unsuccessfully tried to get him to drop out.
In first round late last month, it was instead Macron who came in first with 24 percent, followed by Le Pen at 21, Fillon at 20, and Mélenchon at just under 20, while Hamon earned a measly 6 percent. Macron and Le Pen thus advanced to the runoff, resulting in the first instance in which the mainstream right failed to move on to the second round. In fact, Mélenchon's late surge at Hamon's expense raised the prospect that he might go to a runoff with Macron, which would have shut out both the right and the far-right, a prospect that came quite close to happening.
Viewing Le Pen as an almost existential threat to France and even the European project, both Fillon and Hamon immediately endorsed Macron for the second round, as did many of their parties' key members, while Mélenchon told his supporters not to vote for Le Pen but refused to outright back Macron. Macron ended up winning far more support from the voters of those three defeated candidates than Le Pen did, although many voters simply abstained.
According to the exit polls, Macron won all age groups and did best with younger voters and the elderly, the latter of whom typically vote for mainstream conservatives. Macron similarly performed his strongest among those with higher levels of educational attainment, but he still managed to win among voters who would be equivalent to those who have not attended college in the U.S. He did exceedingly well among the affluent, but also did well with relatively low-income voters, thanks in part to dominance among typically mainstream conservative-voting retirees. However, Le Pen did manage to win among blue-collar workers.
While Macron's 30-point landslide is the third-biggest margin of victory in any post-war French presidential election, it doesn't mark a total defeat for the extreme right. Le Pen's estimated vote share of around 35 percent is still by far the best performance for a far-right candidate in French history, nearly doubling the record that her father set when he shockingly made the runoff for the first time in 2002. That event prompted a massive outcry from the French public and international media, with nearly all other political factions uniting around conservative President Jacques Chirac, even the Socialists. Chirac trounced the elder Le Pen 82-18, but fast forward 15 years, and Marine Le Pen's loss with nearly twice the percentage of the vote has nevertheless been greeted as a relief. While far-right populism failed to win, 2017's results demonstrate it's a force that's grown and become normalized over the long term.
The first critical test for Macron's infant presidency will be National Assembly elections on June 11 and 18. France operates under a hybrid constitutional system known as semi-presidentialism where the president has more powers than those with that title typically have in a traditional parliamentary regime, but he lacks a strong veto power of the sort that you see in American-style full presidential systems.
Typically, if the opposition holds a parliamentary majority, the prime minister calls most of the shots, particularly on domestic policy. This arrangement is referred to as cohabitation, and has happened on three occasions in the Fifth Republic. However, this outcome often occurred because presidential terms used to run seven years and parliamentary terms five, meaning the elections often did not coincide, and midterms, in France as in the U.S., tend to be unfavorable to the president's party. Subsequent reforms shortened the presidential term to five years in 2002, meaning parliamentary elections take place shortly afterward, and the president's party or coalition has since always won control.
Macron's En Marche! and Le Pen's National Front currently hold a mere three of 577 National Assembly seats between them, but as noted, presidential results have proved to heavily shape the outcome in subsequent legislative elections. These elections use a two-round system where any candidate who earns the support of more than 12.5 percent of all registered voters in the first round can choose to advance to the runoff, where the top vote-getter wins. In practice, that usually means a threshold closer to 20 percent thanks to non-voters and those who abstain in protest.
With the left's divisions, it's uncertain if left-leaning voters will gravitate toward candidates of Macron's new party or stick with the Socialists or even the radical left. Meanwhile, many parties have historically united around whoever stands the best chance of beating the National Front in the runoff, but it remains to be seen if conservative voters will do so this year.
Recent polling has been relatively scant, but one survey showed En Marche! surging to a strong plurality or even majority at the Socialists' expense. If that happens, it would put Macron in a strong position to form a favorable coalition, ensuring he can pick his preferred prime minister and essentially get to head the government. However, if mainstream conservatives and the National Front perform better than expected, Macron could have a tough time putting together a stable governing majority.
In sum, Macron's victory is a shot in the arm for mainstream forces in Europe after years of seeing the anti-immigrant right-wing populists surge in support. However, the political problems facing France and the EU itself extend far beyond the radical right, refugees, and immigration. While Macron handily defeated Le Pen, she proved that far-right ultra-nationalism isn't a deal-breaker for one in three voters.
If the radical right can make further inroads with blue-collar voters, particularly if Macron's fiscally conservative economic policies further alienate them, politics could continue to realign around a nationalist/globalist axis rather than a class-based struggle between the traditional left and right. Meanwhile, the National Front's continued strength has already seen the mainstream right drift closer towards authoritarian nativism in an effort to woo their voters, and their refusal to work with the far-right might not last forever.
● South Korea—president (May 9)
South Korea will soon head to the polls to select its next president following the biggest political scandal the country has seen since the return of democracy three decades ago. Disgraced conservative ex-President Park Geun-hye was removed from office in March and subsequently arrested after a huge corruption and influence-peddling scandal sparked mass street protests and left her with an approval rating in the single digits. Her ouster subsequently moved up the date of the next presidential election from December to May.
Park's Saenuri Party had been South Korea's only major conservative party, but her implosion prompted a small anti-Park center-right faction to split off and form the Bareun Party, with the larger and more right-wing Saenuri becoming the Liberty Korea Party. Both are running separate presidential candidates, making the already dire odds of electing another conservative even slimmer since all it takes to win is a simple plurality. The biggest beneficiary from the right's meltdown is unquestionably the main opposition Democratic Party (a center-left party sometimes known by the name Minjoo), which runs the legislature with the smaller and more centrist People's Party.
Democratic Party nominee Moon Jae-in has led nearly every poll for months, and he currently maintains a double-digit edge over People's Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, who had previously supported Moon in his narrow 2012 election loss to Park. Liberty Korea nominee Hong Jun-pyo is an extreme hardliner in his approach to North Korea, and thanks to a late surge, he could come in second, but unless there's a massive polling misfire, Moon appears to be the heavy favorite to finally win the presidency.
A victory by Moon, or even by Ahn, would lead to a marked shift away from Park's hardline approach in favor of renewed diplomacy to resolve tensions with South Korea's increasingly bellicose and unstable neighbor to the north. Moon has campaigned in opposition to the deployment of the U.S.'s missile-defense system called THAAD, which the Trump administration controversially activated mere days before the election over the objections of North Korea's all-important regional ally China. On the domestic front, Moon would also seek more progressive economic policies and take a harsher line against the close ties between big businesses and government that have long been a feature of Korean politics.
Middle East/North Africa
● Iran—president (May 19)
Iran's presidential election kicked off last month when the country's Guardian Council, a powerful body of clerics and jurists that oversees Iran's elections, produced a list of six candidates permitted to run for president. The council rejected a record 1,630 candidates, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who long ago lost favor with hardline conservatives and is now a man without any base of support. The six candidates include three moderate reformists and three hardline conservatives, though only one reformist and two conservatives look like possible winners.
President Hassan Rouhani is the leading candidate of reformists, centrists, and some moderate conservatives, as he was in 2013. His first term has generally been a success, marked most notably by a nuclear deal with Western nations that included the lifting of sanctions and an improved economic situation for the country. However, he's made little progress on increasing political and social freedoms, leaving many supporters disappointed at the pace of progress. Despite this, he remains the favorite, particularly as no incumbent Iranian president has ever lost re-election.
Rouhani's two main conservative challengers include Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who came in a distant second in 2013, and Ebrahim Raisi, a former attorney general and close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Raisi is a possible successor to Khamenei, which makes his entry into the race somewhat surprising. A victory or a good showing could make him Khamenei's presumptive heir, but a poor performance could torpedo his chances of becoming Supreme Leader, the country's highest-ranking religious authority.
One of the other reformist candidates is actually Rouhani's first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri. Jahangiri, though, appears to be more of a decoy to draw fire away from Rouhani, who might otherwise get ganged up on by his opponents in three scheduled live television debates. Jahangiri is also entitled to the same amount of television time as the other candidates, which is a further opportunity to tout the Rouhani administration's successes. As in many European countries, television time for candidates in Iran is strictly regulated and equal time for all candidates is required.
Jahangiri therefore will almost certainly drop out of the race and endorse Rouhani before the first round on May 19. It's also possible that either Ghalibaf or Raisi could drop out and endorse the other, though that's far less clear. If no one wins a majority in the first round, as Rouhani did in 2013, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff one week later. That would almost certainly feature Rouhani against either Ghalibaf or Raisi.
● Turkey—constitutional referendum (April 16)
As Turkey continues its bleak slide towards authoritarianism, conservative President Erdogan's constitutional referendum remaking the Turkish state squeaked by under dubious circumstances, "winning" by a 51-49 margin. Despite extensive state suppression of the "no" campaign and accusations of ballot stuffing and election fraud, referendum opponents came closer to winning than many expected, though it's fair to wonder whether Erdogan ever would have allowed the referendum to fail.
Regardless, Erdogan claimed victory in his drive to turn Turkey's parliamentary system of governance into an executive system dominated by a supercharged presidency. The new changes abolish the position of prime minister; allow the president to directly appoint and fire cabinet ministers without any parliamentary input; and give him the power to pick many key members of the judiciary. No wonder Donald Trump, alone among Western leaders, called Erdogan to congratulate him on this "victory."
The new system will come into full effect after the next election, which is now scheduled for November 3, 2019 for both president and parliament. Assuming Erdogan wins that election, he would then be able to serve two five-year terms, potentially extending his rule all the way until 2029. And with likely parliamentary majorities for his Islamist Justice and Development Party, Erdogan will essentially be able to govern the country as he sees fit, without any resistance from either the opposition or the bureaucracy.
● Albania—parliament (June 18)
The small Balkan nation of Albania is set to hold parliamentary elections in June, but the opposition conservative Democratic Party announced in April that it would boycott the vote unless the current Socialist Party-led coalition resigns in favor of a transitional government to oversee the election. The opposition claims that Prime Minister Edi Rama's cabinet will rig the vote, but they have also been boycotting parliament itself since February, partly in an effort to block key legislative reforms to the judiciary that are needed for Albania's European Union membership bid to proceed.
The Democratic Party is a member party of the transnational European People's Party, which is the European Parliament's main center-right faction, but even the EPP's president (a French politician) called for the boycott to end to protect Albania's fragile democracy. The Democratic Party was previously in power in a coalition with the small center-left Socialist Movement for Integration, but it lost in the 2013 elections to a coalition of the two socialist parties in what many observers saw as a positive sign for democratic consolidation. However, like many post-communist regimes in the region, corruption is a major problem that crosses party lines and could be a potent election issue.
● Germany: North Rhine-Westphalia—state parliament (May 14)
Germany's largest state goes to the polls next week in what could be a key preview of the country's nationwide federal election coming in September. North Rhine-Westphalia, which is home to nearly twice the proportion of Germany's total population as California is in the U.S., borders Belgium and the Netherlands in the northwest of the country. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has historically dominated the state, winning all but one election since 1966, and it will be looking for a strong re-election result to invigorate its challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) later this year.
The state is currently governed by a coalition of the SPD and the center-left Greens, but it's unclear if the two parties will together win a majority in this election. Both parties are down a few percentage points in the polls from their 2012 results, while CDU is up a bit, putting them within single digits of the SPD. If the SPD and the Greens fall short, they could bring the far-left Die Linke (literally "The Left") into their coalition. While Die Linke didn't win enough votes to cross the 5 percent "threshold" necessary to earn seats in the state parliament in 2012, they're now consistently polling in the high single digits. The only other likely arrangement would be a grand coalition between SPD and CDU, with whichever party comes in first claiming the top leadership post, called "minister-president."
The classically liberal center-right Free Democratic Party (FDP) and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are also expected to enter parliament, taking about 10 percent of the vote each. FDP is traditionally a coalition partners of the CDU, but the rise of AfD and FDP's poor showing in the wake of the lengthy financial crisis that began with the Great Recession has made right-of-center coalitions difficult. In particular, with AfD eating into their vote on the right, CDU-FDP coalitions have often not been able to reach majorities in many state parliaments. That's typically forced the CDU, even when victorious, to reach out to the SPD to form grand coalitions (or, occasionally, to partner with the Greens). Only one German state, Bavaria, does not include at least either the SPD or the Greens in its governing coalition. Meanwhile, the FDP is not a member of a single coalition anywhere.
Elections in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, which we previewed last month, also took place on Sunday. Early results indicate a win for the CDU and a disappointing loss for the SPD, which had been governing in coalition with the Greens and a small Danish minority party. We’ll cover the full results of both that election and the election in North Rhine-Westphalia next month.
● Macedonia—government formation
Macedonia held parliamentary elections last December that produced no clear winner, though the opposition center-left Social Democratic Union eventually reached an agreement in February with several parties representing the ethnic-Albanian minority to finally form a coalition and oust the right-wing nationalist VMRO-DPMNE bloc from power. However, VMRO-DPMNE politicians, including the mostly ceremonial president, have steadfastly refused to allow the opposition to form a government, sparking a major crisis.
That emergency dramatically escalated after VMRO-DPMNE spent weeks inflaming ethnic resentment by claiming that the Social Democrats would allow ethnic Albanians, who make up between one-fourth and one-third of the population, to run roughshod over the country's Slavic majority. In late April, scores of rioters stormed the parliament building and brutally attacked several opposition members of parliament, including Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev. This violent attack took place shortly after the new coalition elected Macedonia's first ethnic-Albanian speaker of parliament, who will soon formally demand that the recalcitrant president hand Zaev the mandate to create a new government.
European monitors have been pressuring VMRO-DPMNE to peacefully cede power in accordance with democratic norms, but to no avail. The European Union might have to resort to sanctions against the small Balkan country, which could significantly undermine its already troubled bid for EU membership. While VMRO-DPMNE leaders have weaponized ethnic tensions, their true motivation might be avoiding prosecution after their 10 years in office were marred by explosive accusations of widespread abuses of power, including the wiretapping of roughly 20,000 opposition members and public figures.
● Serbia—president (April 2)
Incumbent Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić has only been in office since 2014, and his conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won its third straight parliamentary election in the span of four years in 2016. However, Vučić decided to seek the presidency after the SNS incumbent chose not to run again, even though the office is mostly ceremonial in Serbia's parliamentary system, and even though SNS commands a dominant majority in parliament. Vučić won outright in a landslide over disorganized opposition in April and will soon take office.
While such a switch from prime minister to a seemingly figurehead role might seem strange in many countries, Vučić's move appears to be an effort to consolidate autocratic power. He'll still tightly control SNS and be able to install a loyalist as prime minister, effectively meaning he'll still run the executive branch, too. The opposition and many observers fear that Vučić wants to turn Serbia into an illiberal democracy like those in Hungary and Turkey, particularly after Vučić has already used his power to harshly suppress media freedom.
● United Kingdom—parliament (June 8)
After spending almost a year insisting that she would not call an early election, Prime Minister Theresa May did just that in April, meaning that next month, the United Kingdom will host a major election for the third straight year. May, who became prime minister in the wake of David Cameron's resignation after losing last year's "Brexit" referendum to leave the European Union, will seek to significantly expand the Conservatives' current slim majority and receive a personal mandate as prime minister.
A few factors led to May's decision to call new elections, which otherwise would not have taken place until 2020. One of the most important was the Tories' current small edge in parliament, where they hold 330 of 650 seats. As a result, Tory rebels were able to force May to reverse course or water down a number of legislative priorities. May believes that she will be able to expand her party's numbers, giving her greater flexibility to pass conservative legislation. Additionally, May does not want to be held hostage during Brexit negotiations with the EU by segments of either pro-EU Tories or Brexit hardliners.
The other key factor in May's decision is the terrible weakness the opposition Labour Party has shown in the polls, which gives May much reason to be confident that she will in fact be returned as prime minister with a larger majority. The center-left Labour has since 2015 been led by the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, who has terrible approval ratings. In a recent YouGov poll, just 18 percent said Corbyn was doing well as leader while 70 percent said he was performing poorly. Asked a different way, 13 percent said Corbyn was an effective leader of the opposition, while 69 percent said he was ineffective.
Unsurprisingly, poor ratings for Corbyn and relatively good ones for May have resulted in a massive Tory lead in the polls. Every single poll since the election was announced has show the Tories leading Labour by double digits, by a margin as wide as 24 percent. (For context, the Tories won the last general election in 2015 by about 6 points.)
As for the country's other parties, the centrist Liberal Democrats have improved somewhat on their disastrous 2015 showing, up a few points based largely on their strong anti-Brexit stance. Meanwhile, the xenophobic UKIP, having completed its central mission of forcing the U.K.'s departure from the EU, has lost up to half of its voters, mostly to the Tories. Up north, the Scottish National Party remains the dominant political force in Scotland, though they are not likely to repeat their 2015 sweep, when they won 56 out of 59 seats. That's largely due to an improved Tory performance (yes, even in notoriously anti-Conservative Scotland) and tactical unionist voting by anti-SNP voters (which we first saw in regional Scottish elections last year).
While there's still a month to go before the election, any result other than an expanded Tory majority would be a huge surprise. The possible size of that majority is still up in the air, though, and its eventual shape will determine both how May can govern and what sort of hole Labour will have to crawl out of for future elections. We'll have a final preview for the election next month, including some key seats to watch.
● Canada: British Columbia—provincial parliament (May 9)
Canada's westernmost province will decide whether or not to grant the right-leaning (and confusingly named) Liberal Party a fifth consecutive term as the governing force in British Columbia. Opinion polling currently shows the left-leaning NDP, with untested leader John Horgan at the helm, in a competitive position with Premier Christy Clark's Liberals. A now-notorious caveat must be added, however: The polls badly underestimated the Liberal Party's strength the last time these two parties faced off in 2013. Additionally, a wildcard factor exists in the form of B.C.'s Green Party, which, after having won its very first seat in the province's parliament in 2013, appears to be making inroads in the polls.
While the NDP has come reasonably close to victory in almost every election after a landslide loss in 2001, it remains very much an open question as to whether or not Canada's left coast feels sufficient incumbent fatigue to support an upheaval this month.
● Canada—Conservative Party leadership election (May 27)
In a shocker, the race for the leadership of Canada's Conservative Party turned on its head last month, as possible front-runner Kevin O'Leary abruptly dropped out of contention just weeks before party members cast their votes to select a successor to Stephen Harper. O'Leary, a wealthy investor best known for his starring roles on CBC Television's Dragons' Den and its (inferior) U.S. counterpart, Shark Tank, somewhat remarkably admitted that he withdrew because he felt he couldn't defeat Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a general election.
O'Leary specifically cited his own lack of appeal in the province of Quebec (due in no small part to his inability to converse in French) as the decisive factor in his own self-analysis, and he instead threw his support to his chief competitor, Maxime Bernier, a member of Parliament from Quebec, as the Tories' best hope of containing Trudeau to a single term. (A new election must take place by October of 2019.) Bernier, a noted libertarian within the Conservative caucus, is now the front-runner, but with a 13-candidate field and a ranked ballot system in place, nothing is certain.
● Bahamas—parliament (May 10)
The small Caribbean archipelago nation of the Bahamas will elect its parliament using single-member districts where all it takes is a plurality of the vote to win. Prime Minister Perry Christie's left-of-center Progressive Liberal Party will be defending the majority they won in 2012, and their main opponents are the center-right Free National Movement, with whom they've alternated in power since independence from the United Kingdom in 1973. Meanwhile, the newer right-of-center Democratic National Alliance hopes to win seats for the first time.