Another European election was announced this week, but not even Britain going to the polls again can take away one simple fact: the future of the European Union hinges on France.
Unlike basically every other country in Europe, the French electoral system is designed around electing a powerful President who then works with a separately elected legislature. This system came into being in 1958 under Charles De Gaulle after the Fourth Republic became paralysed during the Algiers crisis. The Fourth Republic had a weak executive, so De Gaulle decided to rectify that in the constitution of the Fifth Republic by creating a powerful presidency.
The presidency is decided by popular vote. In order to run, a French citizen must have 500 valid sponsorships. Every candidate who fulfils this requirement goes on to the ballot, and votes will be cast until a candidate receives 50% of the vote plus one vote. Theoretically, this can happen on the first ballot, but historically it has always taken a second ballot consisting of only the top two candidates from the first ballot before a candidate has achieved 50%+1. The winning candidate will serve a five-year term.
The two major parties in France are the Socialist Party (PS), who have existed since 1969, and The Republicans (LR), which replaced the Union for a Popular Movement in 2015, which was itself a merger of three conservative and liberal parties and was formed in 2002. Candidates for the presidency tend to form their own parties for the sole purpose of having a vehicle to run a presidential campaign, which they hope will, in turn, create a platform for their party in legislative elections.
There are eleven candidates running in this election, but only five of them have consistently polled above 10% during the campaign, which means they’re the only ones with any chance of making it to the final two.
François Fillon (The Republicans/LR)
The past year has been quite a ride for former Prime Minister, François Fillon. After spending most of 2016 running third in the polls for the first ever Republican primary election, behind fellow former PM Alain Juppé and former President Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon ended up making the polls look like a bit of a joke, comfortably beating the supposed top contenders to coast to an easy victory. Following this, he jumped to first in the polls for the presidential election, but was brought down by a scandal – which he claims is entirely concocted to bring down his polls numbers – regarding the employment of his wife. Since the boringly named ‘Penelope-gate’, Fillon’s poll numbers are, once more, putting him in third.
Fillon’s policies will look familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to politics in western nations over the last few decades, consisting of liberal economic policies and vaguely conservative social policies to appease supporters who actually care about such things. Fillon has promised to extend the average work week, cut the civil service and reduce taxes, and supports the European Union.
Benoît Hamon (Socialist Party/PS)
Fillon was not alone in being a surprise candidate for a major party. Benoît Hamon defeated former PM Manuel Valls (who ejected Hamon from his cabinet in 2014) and former minister Arnaud Montebourg (who was replaced in the Valls cabinet in 2014 as well, and was replaced by Emmanuel Macron) to become the Socialist Party candidate for the presidency. Hamon’s socialism is perhaps more ‘modern’ and more metropolitan than rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Hamon convinced the Greens to drop their own candidacy in order to support him. He could not, however, convince defeated rival Valls to support him, and the lack of support Hamon has received from his own party has hurt his chances considerably, as he has still had to carry the baggage of being the candidate for the Socialists, who currently have a highly unpopular president at their head.
Hamon’s policies are bold, though not necessarily popular, including establishing a universal basic income, changing the constitution of the nation to form the Sixth Republic, massively increased use of renewable energy, and the legalisation of cannabis and euthanasia, while being somewhat neutral on the EU.
Marine Le Pen (National Front/FN)
Marine Le Pen came a respectable third in the 2012 presidential election, earning nearly 18% of the vote. Le Pen took over as leader of the National Front from her father Jean-Marie in 2011, and has spent her time making sure the party can no longer be linked to its questionable past. Le Pen has been the main beneficiary of the increased dissatisfaction with the major parties, consistently leading opinion polls over the last year and being a serious chance not just to win the first round, but to win the presidency in the second round as well. Every terrorist attack in France has been a jolt to the party’s polling numbers, but the mental link between the party and her father’s legacy continues to be a serious hurdle to overcome.
Le Pen’s policies revolve around detaching France from the European Union, including abandoning the Euro, ending open borders, rejecting EU law, protecting French industry and a ‘hands-off’ foreign policy.
Emmanuel Macron (En Marche/EM)
Hilariously described by international media outlets as an ‘outsider’, former investment banker Emmanuel Macron has been placed by the French political and media elite as the saviour of liberalism. Despite having never been elected to office and no longer being a member of the Socialist Party, Macron become a cabinet minister under Manuel Valls in 2014 before resigning in 2016 to start his own party and run for the presidency. Macron become the clear ‘establishment’ candidate following Fillon’s troubles, and has been matching Le Pen in the polls over the last two months, while gaining the support of a great number of establishment political figures, though this has apparently not damaged him, and his image is rather Teflon-esque.
Macron’s policies predominantly focus on the market, with the old adage of reducing government debt being central, and are otherwise similar from Fillon’s, but they tend to be hidden behind promises to support this or that industry or profession that would be affected by such changes. He also thoroughly support open borders and the Eurozone, along with the European Union as a whole.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Unsubmissive France/FI)
A veteran of French socialism, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has come back from the brink to be a real chance at making the second round at this election. Mélenchon was for many years a member of the Socialist Party, but became increasingly agitated by the liberal direction of the party. Following a party conference in 2008, Mélenchon quit the party and formed his own socialist party, incensed that a motion led by Benoît Hamon at the conference had lost out to a liberal agenda. Hamon’s subsequent primary victory for this election was not enough to dissuade Mélenchon from running, and in the last month he has replaced Hamon as the main socialist candidate, on the back of excellent debate performances and a general dissatisfaction with the Socialist Party.
Mélenchon has avoided the policy boldness of Hamon, in favour of an innovative campaign style. His policies are more traditional patriotic socialist fare of higher taxation, protection of industry and reducing foreign intervention in favour of national sovereignty. He is not neutral on the European Union, which he promotes renegotiating with and, if those negotiations fail, proposes to leave altogether. He also supports the establishment of a Sixth Republic.
Much like the Dutch election, there is a great unknown going into this election, because up to a third (though probably closer to a quarter) of voters have still not decided who they will vote for. Unlike the Dutch election, there is no distinguishable pattern to rely on for where voters might turn – at least, not from previous French elections. Taking on board last year’s patterns from Brexit and Trump would lead us to call a Le Pen victory off the bat; taking on board the Dutch election would lead us in the opposite direction. France doesn’t exist in a bubble, and all those other elections are relevant when examining this one. So, too, is the Austrian election, won by a Greens candidate after both major parties were eliminated in the first round. So keep in mind these things when considering who might win: there is a mood for change across the western world, which has favoured conservatives more than socialists; last year’s results were a shock to the system, but took place in countries that were more prone to such events; the French electoral system is designed to prevent shocks, as are all European electoral systems; liberalism is still the most powerful force in France.
Now, onto the possible result. Firstly, we can eliminate all but four of the candidates: Fillon, Macron, Le Pen and Mélenchon. Hamon’s poll numbers were never that great, but have tanked since March, with Mélenchon replacing him as the main socialist candidate in the race.
Currently, Macron is leading in the polls with around 24%, followed by Le Pen at 23% and Fillon and Mélenchon at 19% (remembering that up to a third of voters have not fully committed to the candidate they have given as their choice in the polls). This is a small enough margin that any combination of these four candidates could make it to the second round. The question is, which combination will it be?
Fillon seems like the odd one out, despite leading the polls as recently as January. His position as a former Prime Minister, representing a major party that the French are clearly disenchanted with, and with an ideological combination that reeks of inertia, combine in such a way that it is difficult to see him grabbing enough votes from Macron or Le Pen to overtake them and get into the top two. Furthermore, he is reliant on older voters getting him over the line, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing given the higher proportion of older voters that vote. But turnout in French presidential elections is usually around 80%, and he has lost former Republican voters to both Macron and Le Pen, for different reasons. Those that have switched to Macron are liberals with concerns about the economy, and therefore unlikely to have voted for the Socialists (who are also liberals, but liberals who like high taxation, amongst other things). Those that have switched to Le Pen are more concerned about social issues, and especially about the European Union and everything surrounding it.
I would also be willing to suggest that Fillon’s numbers may be poorer than the polls indicate, because his age demographics are almost the polar opposite of Marine Le Pen’s. Le Pen’s best demographic is 18-24 year olds and her worst is retirees, which is the reverse of the norm. Older voters in Britain were more likely to vote for Leave; older voters in the United States were more likely to vote Trump; younger voters in France are more likely to vote Le Pen. I believe there are two possible explanations for this.
Possibility one is that older voters remember FN under Jean-Marie Le Pen, and will forever link the party and the name Le Pen with him, leaving them with no choice but Fillon to represent their personal conservatism. Possibility two is that older FN voters are more likely to be missed by the polls, as at the last French election where the FN vote was underestimated by 3%. I believe it may be a mix of both, so I expect Le Pen to do better than the polls predict, by up to 5%, but probably not any more than that. This will mostly come at the expense of Fillon, who is also the most likely candidate for ‘shy Le Pen’ voters to park their vote with in polls, though I suspect such voters are minimal.
Without those voters who have left him for Le Pen, Fillon would need voters who switched to Macron to come back. This, however, seems unlikely. Macron has been the media darling throughout the campaign, and appears to have no baggage attached to him like Fillon does. He is able to present a more ‘pure’ version of liberalism than Fillon, though both would like to follow the lead of Margaret Thatcher in their quest to liberalise the French economy. Both are pro-EU. On almost every issue that matters to liberals, Macron seems to be saying that anything Fillon does, he can do better. Where, then, is the path back for Fillon? Macron has the liberal vote – surely the largest of the three ideological voting blocs – mostly sewn up. Le Pen has the conservatives on board. Fillon is left with the remants that don’t like either.
This leaves us with one other candidate: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Ironically, it may be Hamon, the man he supported when he was a member of the Socialists, that costs Mélenchon the chance to be in the final two. Mélenchon has, otherwise, a clear run at it. In fact, if it were only a three way contest between him, Le Pen and Macron, it is entirely concievable that they would each get 30%+ of the vote. Alas, that is not the case, and his socialism is just not quite popular enough, nor united enough, to see him get over the line into the top two. The other main factor in this is that he is the second major candidate with a negative position on the European Union, which gives him little room to be taking votes from Macron or Fillon, whom he needs to get votes from. Le Pen, meanwhile, is the obvious anti-EU candidate, which leaves him stuck between two rocks and a hard place. He will probably be able to scoop up some more Hamon voters, but French socialists have a habit of not voting tactically in presidential elections, so it won’t be enough.
Marine Le Pen (FN) – 27%
Emmanuel Macron (EM) – 25%
Jean-Luc Mélenchon (FI) – 19%
François Fillon (LR) – 17%
Benoît Hamon (PS) – 7%
Others – 5%
This would leave us with a second round contest between Le Pen and Macron. The last time FN made it to the second round was 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen received a mere 18% of the vote after every other party supported French president Jacques Chirac. There is little chance of that happening again, but the Macron question is an interesting one. Fillon voters would probably split about 50/50 between the two; Hamon voters would probably abstain or reluctantly vote for Macron, as would many of the ‘others’. But what about Mélenchon voters? Mélenchon loathes FN’s conservatism, but agrees with them (at least to an extent) about the European Union, and about market intervention. Many of his voters are not inner-city types, but rather belong to the old stomping ground of socialism in the outer cities and industrial towns, just the kind of voter who may be more attracted to Le Pen than to Macron – if they can be bothered voting.
The battle between them would rather resemble Trump vs Clinton, but Macron would have two advantages that Clinton did not. The first is that, given he has much less baggage than Fillon, he has infinitely less than Clinton. The second is that the French system is by popular vote, not by Electoral College. Le Pen would be fighting an uphill battle to get those that didn’t vote for her in the first round on side. In a sense, winning in the first round may prove crucial, as it may be enough to convince voters that she has a chance of winning, and it would be more worthwhile to vote for her than to stay home. Nonetheless, Macron has all the inbuilt advantages, and this year has felt like the (possibly temporary) return of liberalism in response to 2016’s year of the outsider.
One disadvantage for me is that the second round is weeks away, but at this early stage, I will say that it is most likely that Emmanuel Macron will be the next President of France.