France knows what it wants, but not how to get it

Of course, countries don’t really “want” things; only individuals do that. But the individuals that make up the nation of France do seem to have, collectively, a very clear preference about the result of their presidential election. It’s just not certain that they’ll be able to get it.

Polls for the first round of voting open in just over three days time. Four candidates – from left to right, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen – are running almost neck and neck, all polling in the high teens or low twenties. Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, who once made a fifth, has dwindled into single digits, joining the six minor party candidates.

Only two will go through to the second round: it will probably be Macron and Le Pen, who have led the field since the beginning of February, but it is too close to be sure.

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say that there are two candidates on the right (Fillon and Le Pen) and two on the left (Macron and Mélenchon), and that while there may be slippage within each camp, each has enough support to ensure one of its candidates will be in the runoff.

The other way is to use the same logic but describe the two camps differently: one of the political establishment (Fillon and Macron) and one anti-establishment (Le Pen and Mélenchon). If that’s the right way to look at it, then a runoff between Macron and Mélenchon, for example, is a possibility; if the first way is correct, it isn’t.

Unfortunately, no-one knows which of these perspectives is closer to the truth. And absent that knowledge, any of the six second-round combinations remains a possibility.

But while Sunday’s vote is a mass of uncertainty, we know a lot more about the second round. French voters prefer Macron to any of the other three; with him out they prefer Mélenchon; and as between Fillon and Le Pen they prefer Fillon.

Every single opinion poll taken this year – and there have been hundreds – has produced a result consistent with this preference order. Very few have even been close; Fillon dipped to 52.5% matched against Le Pen in one poll last week, and another put Macron at only 54% against Mélenchon, but those are outliers.

In the most likely match up, Macron is consistently beating Le Pen by twenty points or more.

Hypothetical polls are not always reliable; people sometimes behave differently when faced by the real thing. But this degree of unanimity is pretty impressive. It looks as if the French are clear about how they order the possible outcomes; the question is whether the voting system will deliver for them.

Advocates of Condorcet voting, where voters fill out preferences and then all the one-on-one comparisons get counted, will of course point to this as an ideal example of the superiority of their method. And mathematically they’d be right. But the practicality of asking voters to determine their preference among eleven candidates, most of whom will have no chance (but with Condorcet voting you’d have no way of knowing which ones), would be daunting – not to mention counting them all.

The fact that Condorcet voting would at times have given Australia a parliament full of Australian Democrats might also limit one’s enthusiasm.

All voting systems have their problems. In most circumstances, France’s works pretty well. But it’s not designed for a situation that’s getting close to a four-way tie.

Would preferential voting à la Australia do any better? In that case, the key thing is not who finishes in the top two, but who comes fourth. A fourth place for Mélenchon or Fillon would elect Macron; a fourth place for Macron would elect Mélenchon. A fourth place for Le Pen might also elect Mélenchon, although no-one really knows what her voters would do.

Either way, you would save the cost of a second round of voting, at the price of losing the opportunity for people to focus their minds on one decision at a time, and perhaps change their position after another fortnight of campaigning.

It’s a fascinating problem for election junkies. But it’s one with very real consequences for France, as well as for Europe and the rest of the world. And with the incumbent party languishing a distant fifth, France is in for change, whatever happens.

8 thoughts on “France knows what it wants, but not how to get it

  1. The fact that Condorcet voting would at times have given Australia a parliament full of Australian Democrats might also limit one’s enthusiasm.

    Not me and surely all those who profess to be irritated by the major parties. It could have shown a different way, and assuredly even if a total “disaster” could not have been worse than the status quo.

    Polls for the first round of voting open in just over three days time. Four candidates – from left to right, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen – are running almost neck and neck, all polling in the high teens or low twenties.

    You could claim that from any one poll or a poll of polls at any one time–ie. which puts Macron on about 24% and LePen at about 22.5% and the other two about 19-20%. However Macron’s lead has been consistent over hundreds of polls over months so he is ahead with pretty solid statistics.
    However the real problem is the almost 30% of voters who have not made up their minds. This is the hope for the FN but of course they would have to get almost 100% of those undecided to win this election (because the only way LePen can win the Presidency is by winning the first round, ie. >50%). I don’t believe there is much of a “shy voter” phenomenon in France for Le Pen; they will be upfront about voting for her. (Though she didn’t make it easy for her more crossover supporters by denying the French involvement in the Vel d’Hiv deportations in WW2.) My interpretation is that not enough undecideds will go for Mélechon which is a protest vote, and Fillon is a goner (a lot of those undecideds are former Republicains who are also looking for something else, and Fillon assuredly is not it). Macron and Fillon (yes, not contradictory) are the only two that appear “presidential”. So while Macron is a risk, he hasn’t put a foot wrong (so much for being totally inexperienced; he won both debates) and the times are right for many undecideds to take the gamble.

    There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say that there are two candidates on the right (Fillon and Le Pen) and two on the left (Macron and Mélenchon) … The other way is to use the same logic but describe the two camps differently: one of the political establishment (Fillon and Macron) and one anti-establishment (Le Pen and Mélenchon).

    This reveals the problem with trying to describe modern politics. None of this is adequate. Describing Le Pen as Far-Right is inadequate and some people say she is Far-Right on social issues (including immigration & racism, gender issues) but Far-Left on economics. Macron is almost a mirror image being Left on social issues but kind of Right on economic issues; though really he is a technocrat and the Right ideologues don’t always choose the technically correct policy (so again the nomenclature is inadequate; Macron is not “Right” in the same way as Fillon who is a regressive Thatcherite! Absurd. If Fillon is the answer, what the heck is the question?)
    This Janus nature of Macron explains his current lead and why those conservative undecideds could bring themselves to vote for him (I mean in the first round). The PS diehards may find it harder to trust his economic technocratic tendencies but enough of them know in their hearts and minds that Mélenchon doesn’t really have any answers either. I can’t be sure since I am not in France (and the Anglophone media coverage of this is terrible; Foreign Correspondent last night was a silly blow-up of a tiny town that in no way reflects greater France) but I don’t think voters consider Macron an strong or corrupted “insider” or “establishment”; true he went to the best schools (Henry IV!), Sciences Po and is an ENArciste but he was only a PS member for a short time, and only a junior finance minister in Hollande’s government for 13 months before resigning and going independent. Being so young also insulates him from such accusations, IMO.

    That’s my two bits. I wouldn’t bet the house on it but I reckon, without any new big surprises, Macron is the man. (Note, this does not preclude a biggish jump to Le Pen because it can’t be big enough to push her over; the only argument you could make is that it might give her the Big Mo going into the second round, but actually it is more likely to produce a stronger counter-reaction and turnout to block her.)

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    1. Thanks Michael – I think we’re pretty much on the same page here. My dig at the Democrats was somewhat tongue-in-cheek; I think I voted for them once or twice myself. I think it will be very hard for Macron to lose from here, but he’s not quite over the line yet. I do think there’s an underlying left/right dynamic still very visible in French politics; it appears in the “cultural” or “identity” issues like immigration and same-sex marriage. The question is whether or not that’s the main thing driving candidate allegiance – that’s what will determine, for example, whether you get much crossover between Le Pen and Mélenchon.

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  2. All voting systems have their problems. In most circumstances, France’s works pretty well. But it’s not designed for a situation that’s getting close to a four-way tie.
    Would preferential voting à la Australia do any better?

    Hmm. I must say that I have been converted to the French run-off method. The only “advantage” of Australia’s preferential system is that it is quicker and cheaper, but those are not very good reasons when it comes to such important decisions. I reckon the run-off forces voters to rethink things between the two rounds. There is an inbuilt cooling off which is no bad thing.
    Also I didn’t quite understand why you say it doesn’t work for a four-way contest. Sure it does. … unless you envisage a scenario where Mélenchon beats Macron by a tiny margin, while in a preferential distribution Macron would get a lot more of everyone’s second vote? (hmm, but not if he was third after Le Pen … ok I give up).

    Re my earlier complaint about Anglophone media coverage, I am just watching (by PVR, ie. much delayed tonight) ABC Lateline which has devoted the whole 30 minutes to the French election and it isn’t half bad (with two Franco-Brits and one French journo/political scientists). They were all saying a version of what I wrote in my first post: Macron is accurately walking this contemporaneous middle line that the voters themselves find themselves in; and not through political calculation but for the exact same reason (ie. he is genuine and this comes across).

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    1. I’m glad Lateline has got its act together; I agree that most of the Anglo media coverage has been very poor. The problem with two-round voting is if they finish, say, in the order Le Pen-Mélenchon-Macron-Fillon. In that case Mélenchon would win, even though we know the majority prefer Macron to him. Whereas with preferential voting, Fillon’s (and Hamon’s) preferences would put Macron ahead of Mélenchon or Le Pen (or both), and he’d then win on their preferences. That’s a real disadvantage of the two-round system; whether it’s enough to outweigh the advantages you cite (which I agree with) is a difficult question.

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      1. Right. For a moment I forgot that they start counting preferences beginning with the “biggest loser” and that this can rearrange who are the top two as the other losers’ prefs are sequentially counted.

        I suppose what this suggests is that you could combine first round preferential voting with second-round run off (two candidates) for the best of both systems?

        I am probably repeating myself but what is happening in France is pretty much exactly what has been happening in the Anglophone world, ie. the breakdown of two-party politics. I don’t know if the French system can sustain government with a coalition of many smaller parties but Macron certainly looks on the verge of bringing a total realignment, while also becoming reliant for actual governance on a perhaps messy coalition (ie. in the House of Deputies). Interesting to see that the same pattern is discussed today for the only mechanism to overcome the Cons in the UK election: a grand coalition of Labour, SNP & LibDem. Problem is Labour doesn’t have the leader to do this and with their awful FPTP system, it only works if they pre-select a single candidate out of the three parties for each electorate. I suppose they could run their own primaries (using preferential voting!) to select the single candidate!
        …………….
        I suspect the latest terrorist incident might bring a few undecided votes over to Le Pen (though one would have thought those voters inclined to be so influenced would already be in her column) but it certainly won’t make the difference for her. A small change could make the difference to the others but it is hard to see why any one of them would gain over the others, as none of them has proven authority etc to claim themselves as a credible saviour against this stuff. (Though Macron is the only candidate who has explicitly made pledges to work on the problems of minority–ie. immigrant, ie. muslim–impoverishment etc. Last night Lateline showed him venturing deep into those N & NE suburbs of Paris and engaging with such communities.)

        Incidentally, while I want Macron to win, I don’t know if he will bring real positive change to France and to the EU. But I do know that all of the others won’t do it, so there is no choice. It is a gamble but it is high time to take that risk. In a paradoxical sense, Hollande and his paralyzed government is to thank for leading to this. (Well, “credit” needs to go to Chirac and Sarkozy too! I actually think their combined uninterrupted 17 years is where the real blame lies.)

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      2. Here’s Martin Kettle in today’s Guardian:

        Centre parties and centrist candidacies come in different guises in different political traditions, not just France. Think the Liberal-SDP alliance in 1980s Britain. Think the business-based German Free Democrats. Think Justin Trudeau’s revived centre-left Liberals in Canada, or Spain’s new fourth party, Ciudadanos (Citizens). Macron’s En Marche! movement is different from all of them, because it is so personally focused, completely untested and in many ways peculiar. But centrists all have something important in common – they always struggle to break the familiar though weakened two-party grip of the old centre-right and the old centre-left.

        But it can happen, even in France, with its deep-rooted and once-rigid political traditions.
        …….
        Yet if the polls are right – a big if – Macron will overturn the French political order when the contest concludes in less than three weeks . His problems will be immediate, above all winning a parliamentary majority against a strong Front National. But he will have proved that there is an alternative, a third way, between – as he put it the other day – Thatcher and Trotsky. And he’s right.

        I wonder if there has been any airing of this issue (parliamentary elections) during this campaign. The Anglophone media has near total silence on it. Kettle mentions it in passing two days from the Prez elections! It seems to me it could have been something Macron could have campaigned on as his strength (though others will claim it is a weakness; no they are stuck in the old two-party mindset). Well, I guess it will start on Monday.

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  3. The French two round voting system is superior to most. But it does have a spoiler effect that preferential voting doesn’t.

    This was demonstrated most clearly in 2002, when a splintered left was denied a candidate in the second round, despite having collectively more support than the far right.

    This same flaw is also present in the ‘jungle primaries’ practiced in some US states. It’s theoretically possible to have a run off between two candidates of the same party even if that party has less overall support than the opposition.

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