Thoughts On The French Presidential Election

News and Politics

Some Background

After Trump and Brexit, everyone worried about the much touted populist uprising supposedly taking over the Western world will have their sights set on France, which is currently in the process of electing its 25th President. If you’re unfamiliar with French elections, here’s how it works (don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as stupid as America): On the 23rd of April, all the candidates face off in the first round of voting. This includes the nominees from France’s two main political parties, the Socialist Party and The Republicans, who traditionally represent their country’s left and right wing. The two candidates with the most votes move through to the second round of voting, scheduled for the 7th of May, the winner of which then becomes President. *

What is currently viewed as the most likely outcome is that the Republican François Fillon and Marine Le Pen of the National Front will triumph in the first round. After five years in power, it appears that the embattled Socialist Party would be lucky to strike third place. There is also another candidate, but we’ll talk about him a bit later.

Marine Le Pen seems to be all the buzz for those following the election from abroad. Anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-EU, pro-Russia and big on national identity, she perfectly embodies the Trump/Brexit phenomenon that dominated the news in 2016 – and, after the unexpected results of those two votes, many have begun to contemplate the possibility that Le Pen just might become France’s first female President. Current opinion polling has her around 22-25% for the first, and 33-43% for the second round of voting. Which leads us to the inevitable question…

Will The Polls Be Wrong Again?

One of the many effects of Britain voting to leave the European Union and Donald Trump winning the US election was that, albeit certainly not for the first time in modern political history, everyone suddenly decided that the entire polling industry is full of crap. That is, largely, a misconception. Opinion polling on the eve of the EU referendum showed the result to be within the margin of error. The Leave side was usually behind by one or two points, which, when considering the fact that Leave was always going to have higher turnout, should not have left us so utterly bewildered with the final (Leave: 52/ Remain: 48) result.

On the subject of the US election, once again, a lot of people seem to be misinformed. Most polls conducted right before the election showed Clinton winning the popular vote by about 3%. In the end, she won by 2%. Why didn’t anyone see the result coming? Well, it was largely because those states that ended up swinging the electoral college in favour of Trump had very little accurate polling conducted in them in the weeks leading up to the vote. This was because, partly as a result of an overconfident media, everyone assumed that those states were definitely going to vote for Clinton and nobody had bothered to check. It was this neglect that was the failure on the part of the polling industry. Meanwhile, the information that we actually had was more or less accurate.

I also believe that any comparison between Trump and Le Pen should come with a big disclaimer that, had the US election been conducted under the French voting system, Clinton would have won. All that being said, we are still months away, and therefore it would be wrong to make definite predictions on the back of polling data alone.

The Lesser of Two Evils Fallacy 

As previously mentioned, the most common prediction at the moment seems to be that Le Pen will win the first round and face Fillon in the final stage of the contest. At that point, it is presumed that a grand coalition of the left, centre and centre-right will form around the Republican candidate to ensure that the far-right is defeated. After all, this has happened before. In 2002, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was thoroughly defeated by the Republican Jacques Chirac, who won 82% of the vote to Le Pen’s 18%. Will history repeat itself? Most pundits seem to think so. However, there are a few things I think are worthy of consideration.

Fillon is, by most accounts, a far less impressive candidate than Chirac was in 2002. On the other hand, Le Pen junior has done a lot of work to modernise the National Front from the days of her father, who she expelled from the party in 2015 after his comments on Holocaust denial. Furthermore, 2002, I dare to point out, was before the financial crisis, and before the same rise of populism which has propelled Trump and Brexit properly materialised. 2002 was shortly after Tony Blair won his second consecutive supermajority here in the UK. This was a relatively good time to be on the centre-left and centre-right of European politics – now is not.

Moreover, Chirac was much closer to the political centre than Fillon appears to be, therefore meaning he was a much easier pill to swallow for those who don’t normally vote right-wing. Fillon, however, is a man who’s economic policy has most often been compared to that of Margaret Thatcher, including by the French press [1]. On social issues, he is a devout Catholic who voted against same-sex marriage and supports the burkini ban, stances to which the left do not take kindly. Alain Juppé, the former Prime Minister under Chirac and the centrist candidate in the Republican primary, would have likely been a much better unity candidate for the grand “anyone but Le Pen” coalition, while Fillon still leaves me rather sceptical.

Not least for this reason: Most people seem to assume that, on an issue as important as who gets to be the next President of the French Republic, voters will hold their nose and vote for the lesser of two evils. However, who gets to decide what that “lesser of two evils” is? This is precisely the argument that was made concerning disenfranchised Democratic voters in the Rust Belt states. Sure, they might be really really pissed off about Clinton’s stance on trade, but come on, what are they going to do? Vote for Donald Trump? Well, um, yes. For the few million people who’s votes actually decided the US election, it was Trump, not Clinton, who was the lesser of two evils.

Now, as I’ve already pointed out, any comparison between Trump and Le Pen should always be accompanied by the reminder that French elections are decided by the popular vote, which Trump lost. However, I believe the point still stands that simply hoping that the people vote for your lesser of two evils is a pretty shit electoral strategy. Furthermore, while Le Pen is always branded by British and American media as “the far-right candidate”, it is important to establish what the term “populist right” usually means in continental Europe. Most of the support for parties like the French National Front does not come from Libertarians and concerned business owners whose top priority is laissez-faire capitalism and unrestricted free markets.

Rather, it tends to come from the working and lower-middle class voters to whom “globalisation” is actually a dirty word. These people are often reliant on socialised healthcare and welfare benefits, and as such, parties such as the National Front tend to be socially conservative but economically left-wing. Call it cynical all you want, but it’s only clever politics, and a tradition that goes back all the way to Herr Hitler (who we often forget led the National Socialist Party).  My point is, Fillon’s Thatcherite economic policy, which includes abolishing France’s wealth tax, cutting public sector jobs and reducing the welfare budget, is unlikely to have much hope in attracting Le Pen’s base. More crucially, however, it’s a programme that is very likely to put off the left to centre-left voters that he desperately needs for his electoral coalition.

Here is a scenario that, while still unlikely, seems perfectly plausible: It’s the 7th of May 2017, and the French people go to the polls. After an energetic campaign between two right-wing candidates, the left is both disenfranchised and divided. Some moderates, utterly terrified at the prospect of the National Front seizing power, hold their nose and vote for François Fillon. Many others simply stay at home, while a considerable number of the populist left vote for Le Pen on account of her economic policy. At the same time, the right is split in two between those that back Fillon and a sizable minority that instead opts for Le Pen. In the end, the latter scrapes together a slight victory on the back of disenfranchisement and low turnout, while Fillon’s grand coalition fails to materialise.

Is that likely? No, the left and centre will probably either hold their nose or not vote at all. Current opinion polling suggests that, if Fillon and Le Pen make it to the final round, the former will get 60-70%, the latter 30-40%, while 25-35% of the electorate will abstain. That said, should we completely disregard this possibility and assume that everything will be fine? Also no. If Le Pen loses in the final round, I’ve got a feeling it will be much closer than many seem to think, for the reasons outlined above. Such a result will not be pleasant, especially if you’re reading this on the other side of the English channel.

What’s Best For Britain?

Even though I’ve personally played with the idea that a Le Pen Presidency, something that would likely be the end of the European Union, might benefit Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationships, it might also usher in an era of spectacular economic and political turbulence across the entire continent. As it makes up almost half of its trade with the outside world, the UK probably doesn’t want the EU to totally collapse in a giant populist fireball, despite what some on the fringes of British politics might like to assume.

However, what is still in my mind the most likely outcome, that Le Pen loses albeit by a much smaller margin than everyone originally expected, would be scarcely any better. If that happens, those that are desperate to ensure the survival of the European Union (i.e. the people that hold all the cards in the upcoming Brexit negotiations) will likely do anything within their power to ensure that the kind of populism behind Brexit, Trump and Le Pen is proved to be completely self-destructive. In such a scenario, ensuring Britain fails outside the EU will be seen as essential to their political survival. Therefore, all things considered, it is probably in Britain’s best interests that Le Pen’s populist experiment falls like a grand piano from a Parisian high rise.

The Other Candidate

All of that being said, it is still far from certain that the final choice will be between Fillon and Le Pen. Just as in 2002, this presidential election will be unique in the fact that one of France’s two main parties might not reach the final round. 2017 might actually be even more exciting than that, because there is now a possibility that neither of them will. Apart from Le Pen, the other wildcard in this race is Emmanuel Macron. A 39-year-old former investment banker, Macron served as Minister of the Economy in Francois Hollande’s current administration. What happened? Well, apparently frustrated with his government’s sheer ineffectiveness, last summer Macron resigned and started his own political movement in anticipation of a potential bid for the Presidency.

Now, while senior members of the Socialist Party have called him a backstabbing traitor who’s only guide is personal ambition, and while you might be inclined to agree, it’s hard to deny that the man has balls. Furthermore, I personally wouldn’t lecture him on morality. All politicians seek to advance their own career, and I’ve got a feeling that, if given the chance, many of Macron’s envious colleagues would have done the same. Call me cynical all you please, but bad behaviour is almost always good politics.

Anyway, free from the shackles of the Socialist Party and its deeply unpopular five years in government, Macron’s strategy has been to target the centre-left to centre-right voters that are likely to feel left behind in the battle between Fillon and Le Pen. By marketing himself as a centrist, Macron claims he wants to go beyond the traditional left-right divide. Think of him as a Tony Blair (or perhaps a Roy Jenkins) to Fillon’s Margaret Thatcher. And the approach so far seems to be working. The latest polls have Macron as high at 24% for the first round of voting (up from around 16% when he first announced his bid), which is neck and neck with Le Pen and about two points below Fillon[2].

If he manages to get through to the second round, Macron’s chances are considerably better. If facing off against Le Pen, he stands a far better chance at mobilising the left than Fillon can reasonably hope to, although that comes at the cost of losing some on the right. Opinion polling for the second round reflects this, giving Macron between 60-70% against Le Pen (the same as Fillon). If Le Pen is instead the one eliminated in the first round, a matchup against Fillon gives Macron 52% vs the latter’s 48%. However, considering that only one poll has so far been conducted with that scenario in mind, and that the only way to reasonably look at polls is through an aggregate (not to mention 4% is around the margin of error and the election is months away), everything is still to play for. Like him or not (and I actually kind of do), Macron is the only hope for the socially liberal and pro-European minded with a stake in the French Presidential election (i.e. everyone in Europe).

Be Mindfull Of The Unkown 

As I wrote earlier, it would be totally wrong to make predisposed judgements based solely on the back of polling data. Moreover, a lot of things can happen between now and April 23rd and May 7th. Considering the fact that a substantial part Le Pen’s support comes from those worried about immigration and external threats to their safety, and considering the fact that France has been ground zero for many recent terrorist attacks on Europe, who is not to say that another particularly bloody attack on the country might shift more voters towards the National Front. As previously mentioned, I think the final vote might be much closer than anticipated, and something on this scale could have the potential to flip the result. We definitely seem to be living under the Chinese curse.

*As someone who is interested in the intricacies of different voting systems, I think the way the French conduct their Presidential elections is a fairly reasonable way to do things in a multiple people, one position, contest (it definitely makes more sense than the electoral college). That being said, I would personally prefer a system whereby the final round includes more than two candidates and is conducted via the alternative vote (i.e. when candidates are ranked in order of preference and if no one gets 50% then second preference votes are distributed). This would do away with the problem of having half the electorate feel completely disenfranchised in the event of the final round being between two people from the same side of the left-right divide (as might end up being the case in France this year).