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.
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.