France, two months out

France goes to the polls in just on two months for the first round of its presidential election – one of the most consequential elections of 2022. Centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron is a hot favorite for re-election, even though he hasn’t yet officially confirmed that he’s running; he’s quoted this morning at Sportsbet at four to one on.

But things can change in two months. At this point five years ago, Macron had only recently emerged at the head of the pack after the early favorite, centre-right candidate François Fillon, was tarnished by a corruption scandal. From early on, however, it had been clear that Macron was overwhelmingly likely to win if he made it into the runoff.

This year, that’s not the case. The first round is not the problem for Macron this time; he is currently seven points clear of his nearest rival in the polls, and only a major disaster could prevent him from being in the top two. His problem is that he cannot be certain of beating the centre-right’s Valérie Pécresse if he faces her in the second round.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, we can study the polling from 2017 to see what has changed. Two months out, Macron was consistently polling around the 20% mark, about four points short of his current position. The assorted candidates to his left are in aggregate polling in the mid-20s, very much the same as they were at the same stage in 2017. That’s good news for Macron, since provided the left stays disunited, those candidates will all be eliminated and their votes will mostly flow to him in the second round.

Efforts to forge greater unity on the left have so far met with failure. Since we last looked at them, one left-wing candidate, former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg, has pulled out, having failed to make an impression in the polls (he has so far not endorsed any of the others). But that was balanced by the confirmed entry of former justice minister Christiane Taubira, who comfortably won an unofficial grassroots primary that the others refused to enter.

She joins the Socialist Party’s Anne Hidalgo, the Greens’ Yanick Jadot, the Communists’ Fabien Roussel – all, like her, polling in the low single figures – and the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who placed fourth in 2017, on about 10%. Taubira and Jadot have held talks that may possibly result in them pooling their efforts, but that would be a long way short of what is needed.

The important difference from last time around is in how the right-of-centre vote is distributed. Then, the far right’s Marine Le Pen had a place in the runoff pretty much sewn up, meaning that the centre-right had no chance unless they could get ahead of Macron in the first round. This time that’s not the case.

The far right has split, with Le Pen and her further-right rival Éric Zemmour both polling in the mid-teens, together with the Gaullist Pécresse. If Pécresse can get her nose in front she will face Macron in the runoff, and unlike Le Pen and Zemmour she has a reasonable chance of beating him. That’s why the betting market has her as the only other serious chance, at 11-2. (Le Pen is at 11-1, Zemmour 12-1, Mélenchon 50-1 and Hidalgo 100-1.)

The next thing to watch is the nominations. Not just anyone can run for president: candidates need to be sponsored by 500 elected officials (known as parrainages), and the signatures need to be lodged by 4 March. According to progress figures released on Tuesday, only three have reached the 500 mark so far – Pécresse, Macron and Hidalgo. Trotskyist Nathalie Arthaud is the next closest with 368.

As a rule, the serious candidates all make it; there were 11 of them on the ballot last time. But there’s some doubt as to whether there are enough far-right sympathisers among the officials (mostly local mayors) to get both Zemmour and Le Pen across the line: so far they have only 149 and 139 respectively. And Taubira, having started late, may be in trouble – she is currently a long way back with just 36, behind animal rights candidate Hélène Thouy on 48.

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