It’s probably just as well that I wrote a post last week to advise caution in interpreting official election results. That was for Australia, but the same lesson holds for France, which voted on Sunday in the first round of its parliamentary election (see my preview here).
If you look at the official results, they show that president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition, Ensemble! (“Together”), has a narrow lead, with 25.75% of the vote – only 21,000 votes ahead of its main rival, the left-wing alliance NUPES (New Popular Ecological and Social Union), on 25.66%. But if you check instead the table in Le Monde, you’ll find NUPES is ahead by about 53,000 votes, 26.1% to 25.9%.
The difference has become the subject of some controversy, with NUPES accusing the interior ministry of deliberately trying to minimise its apparent vote by omitting from the total several candidates that it says are running on its ticket. As Le Monde explains in a note, the “slight difference” between the two sets of figures is due to its reallocation of political labels on the basis of more recent information than that used by the ministry, “particularly for certain candidates in the overseas districts.”
You can see what the paper means by looking at Reunion, where the official figures don’t list any NUPES candidates in its seven districts, but where Le Monde describes four of the first placegetters plus a runner-up as belonging to NUPES. Its competitor Le Figaro, on the other hand, is simply using the official figures. (So is the BBC, although the rest of its arithmetic is unreliable.)
Coming first matters for bragging rights, but in a system of single-member districts it doesn’t otherwise make much difference. No-one bothered very much about the fact that the Coalition got more votes than Labor (35.7% to 32.6%) at last month’s Australian election – Labor still won 19 more seats and a majority in its own right, because it had more support in preferences from smaller parties.
The debate is also academic in a stronger sense, in that regardless of the detail of exactly which candidates belong to which alliances, there is no doubt that the left has outvoted the centre. But since neither is anywhere near a majority of the vote, that too is of limited relevance; what matters is the preferences of those whose votes went elsewhere, principally to the centre-right and far right.
Just relying on the official figures, but merging some of their categories, I get the following totals: left 32.6% (up 4.7% on 2017), centre 27.6% (down 5.2%), centre-right 13.6% (down 8.0%), far right 24.1% (up 9.4%) and others 2.1% (down 1.0%). In a proportional system, the far right would hold the balance of power between left and centre.
But two-round voting (like Australia’s very similar preferential voting) gives an advantage to the centre. About half of the runoff contests, to be held next Sunday, will be between centre and left, and about another quarter will be between centre and either centre-right or far right.* In each case, Macron’s candidates may reasonably expect not just to hold on in the 203 districts where they currently lead, but also to overtake their opponents in a fair proportion of the 217 in which they are running second.
So while much of the attention so far has been on what Ensemble!’s voters will do in the second round, the important choices will be made in the other camps. Where they have no candidate of their own, will NUPES voters turn out to prevent a far-right or centre-right victory? Will voters on the right of the spectrum be motivated by the threat of NUPES leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon becoming prime minister?
Or will voters at both extremes follow an “anyone but Macron” strategy and vote for their ideological opposites in order to deny the president a majority?
Last time around, although the centre’s vote in the first round was stronger, it didn’t pick up as much ground in the second round as expected. Faced with a choice between giving the president a huge majority or a merely comfortable one, voters understandably opted for the latter.
This time, however, the choice will be between a presidential majority and a divided parliament. In that case, it seems possible that more voters will prioritise stability and swing back to Ensemble! on Sunday. If not, Macron may have to juggle the competing forces in parliament to get his legislation approved.
And although that should be enough for now, his balancing act is becoming more difficult. As the above figures show, the big shift this year is the collapse of the centre right. Five years ago it advanced to the majority of the runoffs and won 137 seats; this time it is in only 75 and leading in about half of them.
Those who do make it back are likely to drift into Macron’s camp for want of a better alternative. But if they are unable to find a way to regain some relevance, their future looks bleak. And without a viable centre-right alternative, Macron may start to look more like a centre-right leader himself.
* In five districts there will be no runoff because one candidate won an absolute majority on the first round – four from NUPES and one from Ensemble!. In eight districts a third candidate also reached the threshold for the runoff, setting up potential triangular contests.