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Here’s what happened in the first round of France’s presidential election, and what happens next

Macron takes on Le Pen for French presidency. Now What? (Video: The Washington Post)

On Sunday, French citizens went to the polls in the first stage of choosing a new president. The two candidates who received the most votes, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, will now face off in a second round, because neither won (or came close to winning) an overall majority in the first. Here’s how they got here and what happens next.

This was an unusual election

Typically, French presidential elections have seen the two major political parties face off against each other: the left-wing Parti Socialiste (PS) and right-wing Les Républicains (formerly UMP and RPR, as it has regularly switched names in response to political shifts). This time, neither party nominated the candidates one might have expected. The incumbent president, the PS’s François Hollande, chose — in an unprecedented move — not to run for a second term, probably because he foresaw that he had no chance of winning. The former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was defeated in the first round of the right-wing party’s primaries.

Nor did the surprises end there. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic (the current French political system), three out of the four front-runners did not belong to any of these two parties. The right-wing candidate François Fillon came in third, behind Macron, a centrist newcomer to French electoral politics, and the National Front’s Le Pen, only just beating the “French Bernie Sanders,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The PS candidate, Benoit Hamon, came in a dismal fifth. The campaign was marked by scandal — Fillon, who was regarded as an early front-runner, came under fire over funds used to support family members, and never recovered.

Its aftermath will be unique

Polls suggest that Macron has a decided advantage over Le Pen, who is tarred by her party’s history in the extreme right. While Le Pen has just temporarily resigned as party leader, the National Front is viewed by many politicians and voters as an illegitimate political force. Both Fillon and Hamon have endorsed Macron, although Mélenchon has refused to declare a preference so far.

The incoming president — Macron or Le Pen — will have to build a coalition in Parliament including one of the two major parties, if she or he wants to have a parliamentarian majority to get things done. The Fifth Republic, which political scientists describe as a “semi-presidential” regime, was designed to give a strong and stable majority to the executive. Its predecessor, the shaky Fourth Republic, was based on proportional parliamentarian representation, a system that often empowers minor parties. Consequently, the current electoral structure clearly favors a two-party system.

Because neither candidate is a member of one of these two parties, that is a challenge (although much less of a challenge to Macron than to Le Pen, if she is elected).

This may lead to a new version of an old French practice — cohabitation

Over time, the president has come to play a more direct role in the Fifth Republic. This started with the election of the president by universal suffrage, which began shortly after the new office’s introduction. The drift toward “presidentialization” became stronger when presidential and parliamentarian terms became equal in duration, and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin reformed the electoral calendar to schedule the presidential elections first, because most polls gave him the lead in the 2002 elections. Unfortunately for Jospin, he was beaten in the first round by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in turn was defeated in the second round by the incumbent Jacques Chirac.

Chirac’s overwhelming victory gave the right-wing party enough momentum to triumph in the subsequent parliamentary elections, which they had been forecast to lose. This was the end of “cohabitation,” a particular feature of French government, under which it is possible that the president (who is elected directly) belongs to one party, and the prime minister belongs to the other. Although this confused people from other countries, French citizens quite liked it, as it created a kind of domestic balance of power. However, no president has called for midterm parliamentary elections since 2002, as the new configuration guarantees a majority for the entire length of the presidential term. Since the past three presidents became very unpopular during their terms of office — Hollande had only 4 percent approval in one poll early this year — they had no incentive to go back to the people to elect a new Parliament that could only make life difficult for them.

Now, the French have rejected the candidates of the main two parties in Parliament. If the upcoming president cannot assemble a governing coalition in Parliament, or if the main allied party demands the position of prime minister in the negotiations, we are going to see a return to cohabitation.

French President François Hollande called on voters to back centrist Emmanuel Macron over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the second round of elections (Video: Reuters)

How did this happen?

There are a number of reasons we ended up here. First is the rise of far-right movements and politicians, which is happening across many Western democracies. Poor economic growth, general disenchantment about politics, an aging population and latent racism are leading voters in many countries to turn to the right. In France, these movements are more attractive because of the country’s failure to fully integrate immigrants into society over several generations and the now constant terrorist threat associated with radical Islam.

Yet there are also more immediate explanations. This should have been an easy campaign against an unpopular ruling party for the main right-wing party’s candidate Fillon. Instead, his support collapsed when he was placed under formal investigation for charges of repeated misuse of public funds and embezzlement.

On the left, the campaign of the PS’s primary winner Hamon never took off. His party was the target of general dissatisfaction after five years in power, and plenty of scandals (for instance, the minister for the budget had to resign after being charged with hiding money in tax havens). The rise of the suave and opportunistic former finance minister Macron, who set up his own party to attract votes from the center at large, and of Mélenchon, who became the legitimate representative of the left, didn’t help either.

This is how the three “alternative” candidates — Le Pen, Macron, and Mélenchon — made it to the top 4 in the polls. The question now is whether Macron or Le Pen could govern if they were elected. A president cannot do much without parliamentary support in France, since the office is less independently powerful than in the United States. It seems highly improbable that Marine Le Pen could ever find enough support unless right wing leaders forswore their Republican values (they have pledged not to support Le Pen’s party) in return for some ministerial positions. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Macron would have better options, as he is not viewed as a threat to the Republic. Center-left and center-right political figures from both of the main parties may be tempted by the possible rewards, and prepared to run in support of him in the subsequent parliamentary elections.

Manuel Reinert is a PhD candidate at American University.