Field set in France

With five weeks to go to the French presidential election – and seven weeks to the decisive second round, since no-one will be anywhere near a first round majority – the field is now set. On Saturday the Constitutional Council released the official list of candidates who had lodged the required number of signatures.

There are eleven of them (which is about normal – there were ten last time and twelve in 2007), but only five who matter. The six also-rans include two Trotskyists, two from the far right, a rogue centrist and a LaRouchite. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, far right but more moderate than the National Front, has about 3% in the polls; the others are all running at about 1% or less.

Going from left to right, the five serious candidates are Jean-Luc Mélenchon (far left), Benoît Hamon (Socialist), Emmanuel Macron (centrist), François Fillon (centre-right) and Marine Le Pen (far right).

The betting market doesn’t seem to be in much doubt about the result. Macron continues to firm as favorite, now quoted at better than 6-4 on. Le Pen is next at 11-4, Fillon 5-1, Hamon 40-1 and Mélenchon 66-1. The polls consistently show Le Pen and Macron well clear in the first round, and Macron winning the runoff by upwards of 20 points.

Yet pundits, undeterred by the failure of Geert Wilders in last week’s Dutch election, continue to talk up the far right’s chances. Erin Zaleski at the Daily Beast, for example, has a very clear and sensible analysis of where Le Pen’s support is coming from. But the tagline (which she probably didn’t write) says Le Pen “will almost certainly lead the field in the first round of the French presidential elections, and she could win the runoff.”

Well, if Le Pen’s victory in the first round is “almost certain”, then so is Macron’s in the runoff, since the market has those two events at the same price. Going by the polls, however, the first looks considerably less assured: the last week’s worth of polls have Macron and Le Pen basically neck and neck in the first round.

In any case, the first round result (and first round polls even more so) is misleading because, as I explained last month, none of the other candidates are primarily competing against Le Pen at that stage: they are competing against one another. Macron in particular has no interest at all in trying to depress her first found vote, because the sort of voters that might abandon her are more likely to go to Fillon or Hamon.

Ah, you say, but what about Donald Trump? Doesn’t his victory show that the polls are not to be trusted? Not really. Although Trump was behind in the polls, they always showed him to have a real chance. The problem was that the commentators (myself very much included) didn’t believe it. And in France, of course, there is no electoral college to convert a popular-vote loser into a winner.

France is much more like the Netherlands, where for months the polls had said that Wilders was nowhere near the level of support necessary to force his way into government. But that didn’t fit the media’s preferred narrative of a resurgent right-wing populism, so they ignored it.

Opinion polls are not infallible; we all remember 2015, when they recorded a string of failures. But for a candidate in a developed democracy to be polling 62% and lose would be utterly unprecedented. Unless something happens to change a lot of minds in the next month and a half, Macron will be the new president.

And that’s always possible. A poll is only a snapshot at a time, not a prediction of the future. Macron could yet stumble badly. But it has to be said that he’s showing no sign of it so far. And the French media are unlikely to give Le Pen as much uncritical attention as their American counterparts did to Trump.


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