Not surprisingly, much of the commentary on the French presidential election proceeds with no reference to the underlying arithmetic of the vote. So let’s start by looking at actual numbers.
In 2017, centrist Emmanuel Macron won 24.0% of the first round vote. The six candidates to his right* won in aggregate 48.3%; the four to his left won 27.7%. This time, Macron running for re-election won 27.8%, up 3.8%; those to his right (five of them) were down 8.1% in aggregate to 40.2%, and the six to his left were up 4.2% to 31.9%.
So the first thing to note is that the swing to the left, much discussed in the media, is real, although relatively modest.
The second thing is that Macron’s position appears to have improved – not only is his own vote up, but the votes to either side are now more evenly balanced. Other things being equal, he should be better placed this time for the runoff, to be held this Sunday.
The strength in Macron’s position is also real. But other things are not equal, and while the incumbent is still heavily favored to win, his margin will certainly be less than the 32 points by which he beat far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in 2017. The problem is something that’s not revealed by the above summary figures: not the left-right balance, but the composition of each side.
Voters on both left and right have shifted from the mainstream towards the extremes. In 2017, just over two-fifths of the right-of-centre vote was with François Fillon, the candidate of the centre-right Republicans. This time his successor, Valérie Pécresse, garnered only 4.8%, less than one-eighth of the right-of-centre total. On the centre-left, the mainstream Socialist Party fell from 6.4% to just 1.7%, despite the rise in the total left vote.
That’s why, although Macron’s vote rose, so did that of his two main rivals, Le Pen and the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon. It looks as if there is now only room for one mainstream force – which is a dangerous position for a democracy to be in, as I warned five years ago:
Once upon a time the republican consensus was big enough to support three major political forces within it – centre-left, centre and centre right – with the extremists relegated to the fringe on both sides. The danger now is that the decline of the centre-left and (to a lesser extent) the centre-right has left only one viable party in the middle, and the National Front and the Left Front (or some reworking of them) will take their place as the only alternative major parties.
But although the danger is real, there are two countervailing points to make. First, as more voters have embraced the extremes, those extremes have moderated. Le Pen once railed against the Muslim threat to France and promised to withdraw from the European Union; now she is more circumspect. Mélenchon too has mellowed, as evidenced by the fact that he has already come closer to endorsing Macron for the runoff than he did in 2017.
The more committed extremists did badly. Éric Zemmour, who tried to peel votes from Le Pen’s right flank, underperformed his polls with 7.1%. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Trotskyist vote fell from 1.7% to 1.3%. Instead, some of the centre’s losses went to Jean Lassalle on the right (whose vote more than doubled) and the Greens on the left, both relatively moderate forces.
The second point is that there’s more to French politics than just the presidency. Both the Republicans and the Socialists remain strong in local and regional politics, and they have hopes of putting on a much better show in the legislative election, to be held in June. But we’ll talk more about that at another time.
* I’m counting both LaRouchite Jacques Cheminade and rogue rural/centrist Jean Lassalle as on the right; they are they only two that would be at all debatable.