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France’s First-Round Presidential Vote: A Badly Baked Political Soufflé Collapses

Jonathan Eyal
Commentary, 24 April 2017
France, Europe
The first round of France’s presidential elections has shown that populists can be kept at bay. However, although the election of Emmanuel Macron as the likely next head of state will reassure the country’s allies, the reality is that France’s political system is in meltdown.

‘The unlosable was lost. The unthinkable imposed itself. And the impossible happened’ – that is how Le Figaro, France’s top centre-right newspaper, described this morning the results of the first round of the country’s presidential elections.

And for good reason, since it is clear that behind the image of political continuity, France’s political system is in a complete meltdown.

In theory, it is fairly clear what will happen between now and 7 May, when the second and decisive round of the French presidential elections takes place: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front, who got 21.53% of the votes in the first round, will be defeated by Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist candidate who attracted 23.75% and can rely on a much wider pool of future supporters.

All electoral surveys consistently show Macron beating Le Pen, by margins as wide as 20 percentage points in the one-on-one duel which lies ahead. While it is worth recalling that although it is now fashionable to dismiss opinion pollsters as no more than court jesters, since they had persistently failed to predict electoral trends in key countries such as Britain and the US, the reality is in the case of France, the pollsters were spot-on.

They identified Le Pen and Macron as the winners, and the percentage points of the ballots projected for both of them turned out to be exactly as anticipated. That is important, for it indicates that there is no ‘hidden reservoir’ of ‘shy’ National Front supporters who would not tell pollsters how they may vote and who could deliver Le Pen a victory.

The National Front is now so much part of the country’s political fabric that voters no longer need to hide their intentions, and elections can be predicted with greater accuracy.

All this must mean that Macron is likely to fare much better than Le Pen on 7 May, since the key to winning in a second round of voting in France lies in the two candidates’ abilities to reach out beyond their traditional constituency, and Macron is far better equipped to do so.

True, the former banker-turned-politician is suspected of disloyalty by the Socialists, in whose government he briefly served, but where he spent most of his time on burnishing his image, rather than the figures of France’s finances.

And, yes, he is dismissed by France’s traditional centre-right as a lightweight, a flim-flam politician who claims to be neither right nor left but ends up standing for little.

Still, neither the centre-left nor centre-right in France’s political landscape has anywhere else to go but to Macron in the second round. Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has already urged ‘all French democrats’ to vote for Macron, who is now seen as the only line of defence against Le Pen.

The National Front leader, however, is much more restricted in her ability to persuade voters to switch their allegiance; she hoped to do better than opinion polls had predicted in the first round in order maintain her electoral momentum, but failed, and her score – almost a million votes less than Macron – does not bode well for her presidential prospects on 7 May.

Can she still cause an upset in the elections? In theory, yes. Le Pen is a far better campaigner than Macron, who has never served in parliament or run in a national election, and the National Front leader is guaranteed to ‘go for broke’ by pulling no punches over the next two weeks by raising one outrageous proposal after another about restricting immigration, or identifying Islam with ‘terrorism’ in her country.

It is noticeable that Marcon was visibly riled by Le Pen’s digs during the first round of televised presidential debates, and he is likely now to be the direct target of all her attacks.

Le Pen also enjoys another major asset: her supporters are highly committed and disciplined, and are very likely to vote in two weeks’ time, while Macron’s potential supporters are more disparate and less loyal to their candidate.

Of particular concern for Macron must be how to attract the seven million voters – 19.6% – who gave their support in the first round to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left candidate; the danger for Macron is these voters will simply fail to turn out for the second round.

A low turnout will clearly favour Marine Le Pen; a turnout of not more than 60% may well see the National Front leader win. The challenge for Macron is, therefore, not merely to persuade voters that he is the only acceptable presidential candidate, but that they must actually cast their ballots accordingly.

Yet with fears of a low turnout being confounded, the chances are that Le Pen will not benefit from a high rate of abstentions and will, therefore, lose by a big margin.

Still, those planning to uncork champagne bottles for France’s champagne socialist who is about to become president are well advised to temper their jubilation. For what the first round of the presidential elections has also shown is that both the mainstream left and right in French politics have collapsed.

François Fillon, a former prime minister and the leader of the centre-right Republicans, a party which traces its history to General Charles de Gaulle, attracted only 19.9% of the votes, while Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the Socialists, scored a humiliating 6.3%.

The magnitude of the defeat of established politics in France is staggering: just over a quarter of the French electorate now seems to have no loyalty to the two parties which have ruled the country for many decades.

French politics now resembles a badly baked soufflé, with its centre a gooey mishmash.

The next French president will therefore have to recreate his country’s politics, and will have to do so fairly quickly, since parliamentary elections are scheduled for June. So, although Le Pen and her populist rabble rousers may be kept out of the Élysée Palace, it remains to be seen whether they can also be kept out of the new political system which will emerge in France.

Banner image: Emmanuel Macron, the likely winner of the second round of France's presidential elections, addresses his En Marche movement. Courtesy


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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