The recent elections in France and the United Kingdom produced contrasting results on a number of levels. In France, an outsider candidate, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, won a decisive victory over the far-right Marine Le Pen, illustrating the electoral limits of her protectionist, anti-immigrant platform and paving the way for a program of economic reform and deeper European integration. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, a consummate political insider, gambled on early elections in an attempt to boost her meager parliamentary majority and ended up with no majority at all. Macron’s success and May’s failure have major implications for the future of the European Union: the new French president is unambiguously committed to the European project, whereas the majority of the British electorate has turned its back on the Conservative leader’s vision of a so-called hard Brexit. The predictions that the European Union would fall apart under the weight of a populist revolt may have proved premature. Instead, Macron’s victory has given European integration a renewed impetus, while the United Kingdom’s bold decision to leave the EU is already giving way to a more sober realization of the implications of departing the bloc.
The results also provide a stark lesson for the leaders of center-left parties across the democratic world. Macron’s predecessor, the Socialist François Hollande, was so unpopular that he declined to run for a second term, and his party’s choice to replace him, Benoit Hamon, finished in a humiliating fifth place in the election’s first round, with just over six percent of the vote. Despite Hamon’s best efforts, he had little time to revive the Socialist party’s brand, which had been tarnished by Hollande’s presidency. In contrast, the British Labour party, led by the unapologetically left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, stunned pollsters by winning 40 percent of the vote.
In recent years, conventional wisdom has held that socialist and social democratic parties must tack to the
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