France – A Very Unpredictable Election

The 2017 French presidential election has proven to be one of the most unpredictable ever. Just before Christmas, the election promised to be very boring. François Fillon, who had recently won the right-wing primary, was a shoe-in. He and Marine Le Pen were far ahead of any other candidates in the polls and Fillon was easily beating Le Pen at the second ballot. Four months on, these two candidates could still qualify for the second round in which case Fillon would most likely still win. However, it is now only one of a number of possible scenarios with the outcome of the first and second rounds of the election still very much in the air.

There are 11 candidates. There is Marine Le Pen, an extreme-right wing populist; François Asselineau, a right-wing populist; Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a populist conservative; François Fillon, a conservative populist; Jean Lassalle, an anti-European centrist; Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European centrist, Benoît Hamon, a left socialist; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist socialist; Nathalie Arthaud, a neo-Trotskyist; Philippe Poutou, a neo-neo-Trotskyist; and Jacques Cheminade, a cheminadiste. There are eight avowedly anti-European candidates, some of whom are competing with each other to claim that they would be the first to withdraw France from the EU. There are also at least nine conspiracy theorists, even though they disagree about which occult forces are responsible for what.

From this motley bunch, four candidates have emerged – Le Pen, Fillon, Mélenchon, and Macron. A fifth candidate, Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the left-wing of the Socialist party (PS) and winner of the left-wing primary in January, has since faded away, with the polls showing that he is unlikely to reach double figures. This doesn’t bode well for the survival of the PS after the election, not least because various incumbent ministers and senior party figures, including the former PM, Manuel Valls and the former mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, have refused to support their party’s own candidate and have backed Macron. The only other candidate who has caused any ripples in the election is Philippe Poutou, the candidate of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (not the old one, note). He caused a stir in the presidential debate a couple of weeks ago with a brilliant one-liner in relation to the personal and party scandals that have dogged Le Pen’s and particularly Fillon’s campaign. He was a breath of fresh air in the debate, but he hasn’t been rewarded with a meaningful bump in the polls.

Since 1974, the French presidential election has been a battle between left and right. The interaction of two factors has changed things this time. The first was the left- and right-wing primary elections. They returned candidates from the relative extremes of their electoral groupings. On a scale from 0 (extreme-left) to 10 (extreme-right), the PS chose Hamon with a score of 2.8 and the right chose Fillon with a score of 8.1. Their main left and right-wing challengers are Mélenchon, who comes in at 1.5, and Le Pen at 9.1 respectively. This left a huge gap in the centre that Macron with a score of 5.2 was able to fill. This gave him the space to put across a difficult message in the current era – he is pro-European and wants the prudent management of the economy. He has been lucky in that the primaries meant that he has been able to differentiate himself from all other candidates with such a message. At the same time, he has also managed to avoid any gaffes. In addition, the Russians have not been able to target him successfully. Faute de mieux perhaps, he is still the most likely president. The second factor was the series of personal scandals that hit Fillon and his inability to react to them other than petulantly. This led to a dramatic decline in the polls. The interaction effect comes from the fact that because Fillon was selected in the right-wing primary, it was subsequently very difficult to get rid of him when he became toxic. There was no obvious mechanism for standing him down and in any case the person who replaced him would immediately have been branded a ‘loser’. Fillon also had no intention of going anywhere. So, he stayed in the race and the right had to accept the fact. He has since clawed his way back and he is now within a margin-of-error of qualifying for the second ballot.

The recent surprise has been Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He was a candidate in 2012. Then, his support increased from about 8% to a high in one poll of 17% in mid-April. However, he finished with a score of 11.1%. Five years later, he was running at about 11% in the polls in March and has reached a high of 20% in one poll only recently. This time he hopes to maintain his momentum. Mélenchon’s stock (an inappropriate metaphor in his case) has risen since the televised debate a couple of weeks ago. He has mainly benefited from the decline of the PS candidate. At the beginning of March the two left-wing candidates were equal at about 12.5 per cent each. Now Mélenchon is at about 18 per cent and Hamon around 7 per cent. In other words, support for the left has not really increased, but within the left Mélenchon now dominates. He needs Hamon’s support to fall to below 5 per cent to maximise his chances of winning through to the second ballot. Mélenchon is anti-European, arguing that France should leave the EU if a list of impossible-to-agree-to demands is not agreed to. He also believes that France should withdraw from NATO. He is not against all international alliances, though, because he is in favour of linking with Cuba and Venezuela in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. He has also refused to blame the Assad regime for the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria. He believes that the war there is all about gas pipelines. He may yet qualify for the second ballot.

So, three days out from the first round there is a four-way contest.

Macron is still best placed. However, we should be wary of the polls in his regard. He has no party. He has no electoral history. In this context, how should pollsters adjust their raw data to get an accurate picture of his support? Who knows? In short, the polls could be greatly overestimating his support (or even greatly underestimating it). What’s more, a lot of people have yet to make up their minds. Typically, this involves left-wing voters being indecisive about which left-wing candidate to vote for and the same for right-wing voters. This time, though, people are also unsure about whether to vote for the centre rather than either the right or the left. They could choose to go with the left or the right, probably meaning Fillon in reality. Macron was weak in the televised debate. En même temps, his centrist moderation is also being increasingly lampooned. He looks well placed, but he could be the most disappointed on election night.

Mélenchon could also get through to the second ballot, especially if PS and Green voters completely choose to desert Hamon. He is the least likely of the top four to qualify.

For his part, Fillon is proving remarkably resilient. He has the advantage that there is some sort of party organisation behind him and a cohort of committed right-wing voters who want to support him. He has put some of them off with his scandals, but there could be enough for him to win through. I wouldn’t write him off at all. In fact, Bruno Jérôme and Véronique Jérôme have just issued a new Nowcast that shows Fillon going through to the the second ballot, confirming the worst fears of Macron’s supporters.

This leaves Le Pen. She has had a terrible campaign from her perspective. Amid rumours of party infighting, she has abandoned attempts to build some sort of coherent Trump-esque coalition and has fallen back on her most egregregiously atavistic historical revisionism and anti-immigration discourse. Her core supporters remain delirious at her campaign rallies, though, and there is no doubt that she will win the support of new voters who are fed up with everyone. However, she has not campaigned well. On the one hand, she hasn’t tried to win the support of moderate voters. On the other, she has been overtaken at the extremes by some other candidates on certain issues, notably Europe where has signally failed to monopolise the anti-European agenda. She is still likely to qualify for the second ballot, but it has been much more of a struggle than it ever seemed it would be.

The level of undecided voters is high and the level of abstention is likely to be greater than at the previous election. With four candidates so close together, this makes the election difficult to predict. What is more, the idea of ‘le vote utile’, or casting a ‘useful vote’, is playing out in different ways than usual. For some, a useful vote means supporting Macron as the most sensible candidate of them all. For those on the left, though, it can mean supporting Mélenchon as the candidate with the only chance of getting the left into power. For those on the right, it can mean going back to Fillon both as a way of keeping out Mélenchon and as a way of restoring some sort of order to the system. After all, this was an election that the right was going to win for a long time.

The bottom line is that no-one knows what will happen at the first ballot. In that regard, this has turned out to be a very unpredictable election.

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