A four-way race in France

French voters were transfixed on Tuesday night by the unprecedented spectacle of the entire presidential field – all eleven of them – appearing together in a televised debate. It ran for more than three hours on BFMTV, and was acclaimed a great success, attracting some 6.3 million viewers. Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can watch it yourself here.

The big audience isn’t really a surprise. An earlier debate on TF1 two weeks ago, featuring just the five front-runners, had ten million people watching – more than a tenth of the voting population.

As I’ve suggested before, this is something that our partisans of compulsory voting should have a good look at. Voluntary voting doesn’t always produce apathy; in Australia, where we have no choice about going to the polls, televised debates play to a continent of empty living rooms.

A lot of the debate coverage focused of the six minor candidates, enjoying their brief moment in the sun, but they remain fundamentally irrelevant; only Eurosceptic Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who straddles the ground between centre-right and far right (and has drawn top spot on the official list of candidates), is registering in the polls, with a little under five per cent. Whether his somewhat unexpected strength (he only got 1.8% in 2012) primarily hurts Republican François Fillon or the National Front’s Marine Le Pen is impossible to tell.

Among the five who matter, the best performer was thought to be the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who even before the debate had been gaining ground in the polls – largely at the expense of Socialist Benoît Hamon, who is starting to drop below 10% in some polls. For practical purposes, the race in five is now a race in four.

And those four – Le Pen, Fillon, Mélenchon and centrist Emmanuel Macron – are tantalisingly close together. Although Macron and Le Pen are still the clear leaders, neither is guaranteed a place in the runoff. Fillon’s vote has stabilised in the high teens, as the initial impact of his nepotism scandal seems to have worn off. Mélenchon is now only a couple of points behind him, and may expect to gain further if Hamon continues to fade.

With only two and a half weeks to go, voting intentions are firming up, so getting ahead of either Macron or Le Pen will be difficult. Nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where all four finish between 20% and 25%, with the luck of a good performance in the last few days determining which two miss out on the second round. It’s not a particularly good advertisement for the two-round voting system.

Of the six possible match-ups, five seem to have fairly predictable results: Macron should beat any of the other three, and Fillon should beat Mélenchon or Le Pen. The hardest to predict, and surely the most traumatic for France, would be a Mélenchon vs Le Pen runoff, far left against far right. But it’s that possibility that is keeping alive the chance for both of them.

Mélenchon has firmed in the betting market to 25-1 (in from 66-1 last time we looked) while Le Pen has eased slightly to 3-1. Fillon is steady at 5-1  and Macron still a solid favorite at 7-4 on.

For those who can navigate a bit in French, it’s well worth looking through the detailed results provided by the pollsters. Here, for example, is the latest report (dated Monday) from Ifop. Among other interesting things, it gives a breakdown of second round voting intentions, on the assumption of a Macron-Le Pen runoff.

Among Mélenchon’s voters, 53% say they would support Macron to just 10% for Le Pen. Hamon’s are even more emphatic, 65% to 4%. But Fillon’s voters split almost evenly, 36% to Macron and 34% to Le Pen, while 30% either refuse to say or say they would abstain. In other words, Macron would score a net gain of 61% of Hamon’s voters but only 2% of Fillon’s.

There’s a theme there that I’ve sounded before, but it’s worth repeating: the advance of the far right depends less on its own strength than on the willingness of the mainstream centre-right to collaborate with it.

Like all hypothetical polls, those numbers should be taken with a grain (or more) of salt. For one thing, the claimed abstention rate is almost certainly too high; we know that supporters of defeated candidates rarely stay home in the second round, because turnout doesn’t drop. In 2012 it was 80.4% (another rebuke to the compulsory voting brigade), up slightly on the first round, although there were noticeably more informals.

Another fascinating nugget of information is that while fewer than 1% of Macron’s voters say they would switch to Le Pen in the runoff, 4% of Le Pen’s claim they would go the other way – suggesting that, although most of her voters are firmly committed (83% of them claim to be sure of their first round choice, the highest percentage of any candidate), there is a significant proportion who are simply making a protest without really wanting to see her as president.

5 thoughts on “A four-way race in France

  1. The big audience isn’t really a surprise. An earlier debate on TF1 two weeks ago, featuring just the five front-runners, had ten million people watching – more than a tenth of the voting population. As I’ve suggested before, this is something that our partisans of compulsory voting should have a good look at. Voluntary voting doesn’t always produce apathy; in Australia, where we have no choice about going to the polls, televised debates play to a continent of empty living rooms.

    Except do remember that French audience watch 3 hour talkfests on intello or literature in big numbers. One of the top rating shows of all-time was Bernard Pivot’s Apostrophe on language and spelling that ran for 26 years! And the game show Lettres & Chiffres (licensed in Australia by SBS as Letters & Numbers).

    we know that supporters of defeated candidates rarely stay home in the second round, because turnout doesn’t drop. In 2012 it was 80.4% (another rebuke to the compulsory voting brigade), up slightly on the first round, although there were noticeably more informals.

    Like much of the world recently there is more cynicism but the French really do love their Republic. Unlike the Anglophone world such as US and UK where voter turnout can often be barely 50%. The current UK Tories were elected with only 25% of eligible voters or 34% of actual votes cast. Terrible.

    Anyway, despite all the talk in the media of Brexit & Trump, outside the Anglophone world it doesn’t work like that as we saw in the Dutch election. The only way Le Pen could win the presidency is to gain a majority in the first round. Lots of candidates helps her but no, not going to happen. All the polls show in the second round Macron winning 65 to 35. That is too big a gap to close, needing 15% of voters to change their intentions. Not really a “shy voter” phenom in France.
    My mindspace is already beyond this election: what if Macron is ineffective (and he is pretty light on policy as it is and no governing experience–not even a local council; already some people are cursing him by proclaiming him to be the “French Tony Blair”; gotta seriously hope not!)? Then maybe Le Pen might have another real chance.

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    1. Thanks Michael – yes, agree completely on the French enthusiasm for the Republic and for the intellectual world in general. I wouldn’t write Le Pen off quite as firmly as you do; while I agree it’s very hard to see her beating Macron in a runoff, it’s still not impossible that Fillon or Mélenchon could get ahead of him in the first round. Also agree completely that much will depend on how a Macron government performs – which in turn will depend a lot on what happens at the legislative election in June.

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      1. Well yes (not 100% certain) but I can’t help but look ahead. I note that in Chirac’s second term second-round run-off with J-M Le Pen, even though Chirac was deeply unpopular he won 80% of the vote (true he was at least a well known entity with plenty of steady-as-she-goes political experience; unfortunately I reckon the Chirac years were a massive lost opportunity for France).
        I’ve just finished reading todays Ergas piece on the French election. As often the case he gets the bare facts more or less correct, yet manages to get the interpretation very wrong. For example he tries to claim that Macron is simply a Hollande proxy and “But cocooned in the comfortable lifestyle of Paris’s scintillating elite, he and his entourage, with their reluctance to rock the boat, seem miles away from the realities of a country poised on the verge of a social explosion.” He ignores that Macron was junior finance minister for about 13 months before resigning in frustration and then resigning from the PS and forming his own political party. This is not someone who is going to simply swan around the luxurious decadent of the Elysee Palace! (I will admit to a tiny bit of anxiety: power corrupts …).
        However one thing Ergas touches that is perhaps the most significant: what kind of parliament will Macron face (or be able to shape)? I see that the polls give Macron wide acceptablility (60+%; Le Pen is nowhere) pretty evenly across all the departments but I don’t know if it is too much to expect a brand new party (En Marché) to win a lot of seats in their first ever election? Ergas is discussing deadlock with the Republicans or other conservatives but surely the centre-right and centre-left and indeed left will provide the basis for parliament under Macron? This is surely why Manuel Valls (and others including Bertrand Delanöe, Barbara Pompili and other disillusioned PS seniors; plus François Bayrou of Mouvement Démocrate) endorsed Macron. Incidentally I see his polling in all the DOM-TOMs is 70+%!
        It is true that the PS may well be massacred in the parliamentary elections (due June) but that lost vote is not going across to the conservatives (which Ergas implies) but to Macron’s EM and others; again the two-round voting system might come to the rescue because if the EM candidate is in enough run-offs then they have some hope. So if Macron wins the presidential election convincingly and then has a smooth transition for the very brief period before the parliamentary elections, the BigMo might create a safety margin?
        On this I am not at all confident as I’m not so familiar with election of Deputies, and it is a much more complicated situation.

        Ergas also talks about how “the traditional political parties have headed towards collapse” as if he hasn’t noticed it elsewhere particularly in his own backyard and the USA and UK!

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      2. Yes, I can imagine how Ergas would spin that. But absolutely, the parliamentary election will be critical if Macron is going to be able to exercise real power, and no-one has any idea how it’s going to go. It’s hard to imagine En Marche! winning anywhere near a majority on its own, but maybe with various other centrist forces it will do well enough to be able to sustain a sympathetic prime minister (Bayrou, perhaps?). I agree completely that that’s the main reason Valls et al. have come on board: they want to be sure of a seat a the table when he’s putting together a government. But it’s going to make a mess of Socialist Party unity.

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      3. Of course En Marché won’t win a majority on its own and perhaps it is better that it doesn’t. Doubtless I am naive but I hope that everyone, including many PS deputies after the stasis and disappointment of the Hollande (and Sarkozy …. and Chirac!) years, that there will be more of a spirit of working together. Yeah, given the hyperpartisanship we see all around us, that looks absurd.
        Of course I may be like many French in that I may not like some of the reforms Macron may try to bring in. I hate the casualisation of the workforce that we see particularly in the Anglophone economies. I really don’t think that is the way forward for the French. OTOH allowing the public service to shrink by more or less natural attrition would be no bad thing. I don’t think he is going to embark on a Thatcherite privatisation orgy (Fillon might have). I actually don’t think France needs any kind of massive revolution as it needs “only” a few percent change in its economy & govt budget to make the difference. I don’t believe big tax changes are required (and the “happiest place in the world” Denmark has the highest taxes in Europe and Danes are not marching in the streets to get them reduced).
        And unlike a whole succession of French “leaders” he looks like he will be forceful w.r.t. Europe and has a thought-out plan (well, from Jean Pisani-Ferry) on the Euro. If only there were a similar change of German leadership: Merkel and Schnaubel seem fixated on “their” version of the EU and Euro that is intent on destroying itself.
        Oh well, interesting times!
        Regards.

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