Update from Etienne on French elections

Francois Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Républicains, got some good news today, and some bad news. The bad news was an investigation underway by the French government into possible wrongdoing has now been extended by its assignment to three magistrates who may eventually decide to proceed with formal charges. Part of the good news, though, is that these magistrates may also decide to dismiss the charges altogether, a result the Fillons’ lawyers have been arguing for vigorously from the start. Perhaps the best news for Fillon, though, is that the statement announcing the news concedes nothing much is likely to happen before the presidential elections this spring. Fillon initially said he would withdraw from the race if there were formal charges, though he has backed away from this of late. Were he elected president, he would be immune during his term of office, assuming he was not removed.

So it now hangs in the political balance for Fillon. Many polls show large majorities of likely voters in April want Fillon to withdraw, but that does not include his likely supporters, currently numbering 20-21% in tracking polls. It is not clear who would succeed Fillon as the candidate of the Républicains were he to withdraw. Everyone will be watching the polls carefully for the next few weeks to see if his support, which dropped substantially but has recently stabilized, will start tanking again.

Some say it would be far-right Front National candidate Marine Le Pen, who has had a narrow lead over the large field of candidates voters will choose among in April. Others say it might well be Emmanuel Macron, a new face this year. So recent developments for Macron independent of how l’affaire Fillon will play out are themselves of interest.

Last Wednesday, the field for the late April first round elections was finally clarified when Francois Bayrou, a centrist also-ran three times before, decided to propose an alliance with Macron, a media darling and very clever young politician aiming to seize the center in French politics though until recently he was a socialist and held a ministry in Francois Hollande’s government. Macron accepted Bayrou’s proposal almost at once, suggesting it was a done deal when Bayrou proposed it Wednesday. It is not clear what Macron gets out of this deal electorally: Bayrou’s support comes from various parts of the French political spectrum except the extreme left and the extreme right. But plainly it is better to have Macron as a confirmed ally than as a lurking foe. Macron understands perfectly well (as does Bayrou) the value of sustaining his apparent political dynamism, in the polls and in terms of media coverage. The first polls out since Bayrou’s withdrawal show Macron mildly up.

So the prospect of Fillon’s collapse must be intriguing to the new Macron-Bayrou alliance.

On the left, too, there is talk about alliance, but it’s, so far, a lot more bluster than talk. The socialists being led by Hollande have pretty much collapsed: Hollande decided he could not win again; his surrogate–Prime Minister Manuel Valls–lost badly in the socialist primary to left-leaning candidate Benoit Hamon, not widely known publicly though plainly well enough known to party activists. Hamon has just concluded an alliance with a small left green faction. Hamon alone has 13-14% of the vote according to recent tracking polls. The alliance with the green faction yields another 2% at most. The big additional votes on the left–11-13%, according to recent polls–are locked up by a farther left group, France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) headed by Jean-Luc Melenchon. Do the math and it’s clear that if the squabbling could be overcome, a large bloc of voters could be assembled, assuming no desertions. It’s a bloc potentially bigger than Le Pen’s bloc, which currently around 26% in tracking polls. Even if Melenchon himself can’t find harmony with Hamon, might his voters just desert him? It’s a long shot, but the sudden prospect of the left winning the presidency, after Hollande’s collapse suggested only the political wilderness for the left just a few months ago, might be very tonic.

It’s a year of great flux in French politics. Old party structures are teetering and the political battlefield is littered with the corpses of old political lions. Personality is king, and even some of the candidates running in April have only fig-leaf parties, recently created personal vehicles, for their institutional base. This includes Macron, Melenchon and, to a slightly lesser degree because her Front National has been around longer, Le Pen. All told, more than half of French voters support one of these “personalities.” The other two leading candidates, Fillon and Hamon, were dragonslayers within their parties. Fillon knocked off party fixtures Alain Juppé and former President Nicolas Sarkozy to be the candidate of the Républicains. Benoit Hamon knocked off the sitting Prime Minister to become the socialist candidate. Except to Le Pen, voter loyalty to candidates is middling at best; many polled say they could change their minds. Of course, Le Pen shapes much calculation among the remaining candidates. She has gained slightly in recent polls for the second round, where until recently it was universally expected she would defeat any opponent. (Only the top two candidates in the late-April first round face off for the second presidential round in early May.)

If Fillon is seriously wounded or collapses and if much of his vote goes to Macron-Bayrou–two big ifs–it is not unimaginable that Le Pen could be edged out of the second round altogether. Her support is firm but also seems to have a ceiling; polls show she has not gained or lost much support for several months now; she oscillates within a very narrow band. Might voters be more strategic in the first round this year, even though historically they seemed to vote their hearts? Le Pen is a looming presence, and for most voters an anxiety-provoking one; the specter of Donald Trump has not yielded her much in the polls–nor, concededly, cost her much either, at least yet. Might voters–other than Le Pen’s, of course–see the longer-term value for the whole political system to have a final presidential faceoff between a center/center-right formation and a left/center-left formation? I could never have imagined such a thing a year ago, given Le Pen’s steady support on the right and the damaged left from the slow-motion collapse of the socialists to the squabbling and atomization farther to the left. But this has been an extraordinary year in French politics, and with familiar institutions in disrepute and familiar faces falling by the wayside, voter mobility may be a wild card. I’m certainly not predicting, at this point, that Le Pen can be edged out–far from it. But the math is there: voters are divided into four large blocs of the polling data is to be believed: the far right (Le Pen) holds about 26%, the center (Macron-Bayrou) 22-24%, the left–if it could get organized!–about 26%. Fillon, center-right, holds 20-21%. That’s between 94% and 97% of voters currently expressing a preference; the rest goes to small parties right and left. If Fillon is substantially further damaged as the first round nears, who gets his stash? Or do lots of Fillonistes just stay home? Very narrow margins may determine who gets into the second round.

There’s a kind of shadow voter presence behind all the above. Currently predicted abstentions in the first round are substantial–35+ per cent in most polls that display that statistic. How many of these voters, seeing the polls narrowing and the excitement around new faces mounting, might yet be mobilized to vote as the first round in April nears, and for whom would they vote? We have no real idea right now but you can be sure expert observers and political organizers alike will be thinking a lot in the coming weeks about this further wild card turning on voter mobility. What rough beast, it’s hour come ’round at last, might be slouching towards Paris to be born?

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