Explaining the intricacies of France’s coming presidential election

Here is the latest on the French elections from our French politics expert, Stephen “Etienne” Roop.

Les présidentielles 2017                    posted: April 2, 2017

The first round of France’s two-round presidential election takes place on Sunday, April, 23, the second two weeks later, on Sunday, May 7.  Despite lots of news and even more speculation, there has been no real poll movement in weeks in terms of who’s ahead.  If current polls are accurate, three things seem clear:

  1. Newcomer Emmanuel Macron and veteran Marine Le Pen will take the top two places in the first round, and will face each other in the second.
  2. Macron and Le Pen will take a similar number of first round votes; it is presently impossible to project who will get more; together, they might carry, between them,  a small majority of votes; and
  3. Nonetheless Macron is projected decisively to win the second round.


The French system of electing a president under the Fifth Republic is a clear comment on the Fourth Republic.  The Fourth was notorious for frequent changes of government and consequent charges of instability (though, often, the same people went from one government to the next, just changing roles).  There were many parties and much of political life, at least cosmetically, was about patching together a succession of new governments.  The Fifth Republic is designed around a strong and quite independent president.  (Would one expect anything less of one of its key founders, Charles De Gaulle?)  And though many parties persist, the two-round system is designed to produce a president with majority support by limiting the second-round candidates to the top two vote-getters in the first round.  (If a candidate gets a majority of votes in the first round, there is no second round, but this has never happened.)  Of course, this is the majority support of those who vote.  Abstentions are a commonplace of French politics, as they are of most political systems with elections, democratic or not.

This has been an election of considerable turbulence in France.  Many fixtures of French politics for decades have fallen on the field of political battle; party loyalty has slipped considerably and several candidates are running as heads of fig-leaf parties they created for themselves.  And there are deep ideological divisions, at least apparently.

So where does France’s system for producing a president seem to be going, three weeks out from the first round of the presidential election?


Innovation is one element transforming French politics this year.  Primaries, a commonplace of American politics for decades, are happening in France for the first time.  In each of the three parties that has tried them, on the left, the center-left and the right, leaders with long experience, poll support and the nod of pundits have been swept aside, sometimes by virtual unknowns, other times by lesser knowns.

The first hint of this came last October on the extreme left, in the race to be the candidate of the green party, Ecologie Europe—Les Verts (EE-LV).  For press and pundits, the presumed favorite was Cécile Duflot, one of the EE-LV founders and a minister early in the Hollande years.  But ordinary party members had quite different ideas.  Duflot placed a distant third behind two others not widely known outside EE-LV circles, Yannick Yadot and Michèle Rivasi.  Yadot beat Rivasi in the EE-LV primary’s second round on November 7, 2016.

In the Républicain primaries which followed in November, 2016, two major French party lions were slain.  In the first round former president Nicolas Sarkozy was eliminated, probably ending his political career.  This left Francois Fillon, a prime minister under President Sarkozy, and Alain Juppé, a prime minister under President Jacques Chirac, for the second round.  Juppé had shown strongly in polls all summer, and though he was faltering badly in some polls as the first round approached; nonetheless he continued to score well among pundits.  But again, as with EE-LV members, the rank-and-file Républicains had other ideas.  Fillon, who had barely figured in national polls, placed first with 44% of the first round vote to Juppe’s surprisingly low 29%.  Sarkozy trailed even further behind, with not quite 21%.  The effects were immediate.  New polls after the first Républicain round showed Fillon performing already impressively against Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right Front National whose possible presidency had become the political question overhanging all others in the 2017 race.  Fillon went on to trounce Juppé in the second Républicain round on November 27, taking 66% of the vote.

On December 2, 2016, days after Fillon’s second round Républicain primary victory, France’s sitting president, François Hollande, announced he would not, in the socialist primaries upcoming in January, 2017, run for another term as president.  Hollande had been plagued by unpopularity almost from the start of his five-year term, and before his withdrawal had been hemorrhaging public support for months.  In January, though, Hollande’s sitting prime minister Manuel Valls, became the latest lion to fall to party rank-and-file.  He was edged out in the first round by Benoit Hamon, a leftist insurgent not widely known nationally but plainly well enough known to his socialist peers.  Hamon went on to a decisive second-round victory on January 29,  taking 58+% of the vote to Valls’ 41+%.


If innovation has left slain political lions everywhere, indignation should not be underestimated this year as a French political force.  French polls show strong support for a candidate of the extreme right, the Front National (FN) headed by Marine Le Pen, and the extreme left, France Insoumise (FI–roughly, France Unbowed or, less passively, France Defiant), headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon  Indignation may indeed have more adherents than innovation.  Of the three parties which had innovative primaries, one, EE-LV, no longer is in the presidential race, its candidate, Yannick Yadot, having withdrawn in late February to endorse the socialist standard-bearer Benoit Hamon.  The other two innovation parties, the socialists and the Républicains, in polls for March, 2017, can claim at best about 35% of those expressing a preference among the range of candidates.  Marine Le Pen has been steadily polling about 25% of those polled; at the start of March, Mélenchon’s was polling 10-11%, but has jumped to 14-16% since the March 20 debate among the five currently leading candidates in the first round.  This means the indignation bloc represents somewhere around 40% of the voters, though divided unevenly between extreme right and extreme left.


So where is the rest of the electorate?

Less than 10%  of voters support various third parties, of either the extreme left or, mainly, of the extreme right.

The remainder, around 25%,  are supporting a virtually new face in French politics, Emmanuel Macron, creator of En Marche! (Forward!), one of the fig-leaf parties mentioned above.  At least starting out, many saw Macron as a highly improbable candidate, since he lacked either an institutional base, long connection to French high politics, or poll support.  Macron says he wants to transcend the customary left-right divide of French politics, and it is indeed a divide of historic proportions.  His own career might be seen as an example of this transcendence.  He has a quite traditional education for a French aspirant to high office, including training at France’s elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration and a position in France’s Inspectorat des Finances..  He then became an investment banker, in an entity belonging to the Rothschild Group, no less.  He served two years, 2012-2014, as a junior economy minister in Hollande’s government.  (Macron’s Wikipedia profile suggests he was not then a socialist but already an independent while he served.)  But today, as much as transcendence, Macron is targeting the center of French politics—voters not interested in the extreme left represented by either Hamon or Mélenchon, or the extreme right as represented by Le Pen.

In this targeting Macron has benefitted from collapses both institutional and individual.

The institutional collapse, of course, is of the socialist party.  The rank-and-file cling to their elected standard-bearer though recent polls suggest Hamon’s candidacy is of late in serious trouble with voters.  Party members in the government, though, are seriously tilting towards Macron.  Hollande’s own prime minister is the latest to endorse, just a few days ago.  It is widely reported, though hotly disputed, that Hollande himself favors Macron, though Hollande has made most of the appropriate noises about sticking with his party’s elected candidate Hamon.

The individual collapse is of the Républicain candidate François Fillon.  Fillon, from the start, presented himself as a conservative Catholic and the French Mr. Clean, a substantial claim in any case in a political system many regard as simply corrupt when not just hopelessly self-absorbed. In late January, shortly before the second round of the socialist primary, Le Canard enchaîné, a French satirical weekly with a deadly aim, began a series of exposés which began with revealing several no-show jobs for Fillon’s wife Penelope—hence the name of the affaire ever since in the French newspapers, Penelopegate.  Further scandals have been regularly reported and widely discussed.  Most voters want Fillon to withdraw from the race.  He promised to do so if he were subjected to a step in a criminal investigation the French call a mise en examen, but the mise came and Fillon has not gone.  (Now Madame Fillon is in the dock too.)  Fillon slipped a bit in the polls after the first revelations but holds onto somewhere between 17 and 19% support.

For months, there has been very little movement in the polls.  One blip, advantaging Macron, was the withdrawal from the race of the perennial candidate François Bayrou on February 22.  Bayrou, too, had dreamed of capturing the French center but after three tries for the presidency his poll support was thinning out, particularly when, around January, Macron began to gain traction in the polls.  Another recent change has seen Jean-Luc Mélenchon beginning to outpace the socialist candidate Benoit Hamon.  There had been much speculation, when Hamon first became the socialist party candidate in late January, whether he and Mélenchon could form some kind of alliance-of-the-left, whose numbers, including all the fringe parties and perhaps new voters attracted by such an alliance, might well exceed Le Pen’s solid bloc and, possibly, win one of the two places in the second-round presidential election.  (In some schemes, Macron could possibly win the second place!)  But squabbling has been incessant, and now that Mélenchon is leading Hamon in the polls, there is (understandable) dispute over who the alliance’s unity candidate should be.  So the left is unlikely to be a institutional factor in the coming elections:  the socialists are in disarray if not terminal decline, and to their left there’s plenty of energy but it is expended in fighting.


And so, three weeks before the first round of its 2017 presidential elections, France is a deeply divided country—or at least so it seems on the surface.  The extreme right (Le Pen) holds about 25% of the vote, and the hard right (Fillon) almost 20%.  The extreme left (Mélanchon) holds about 15%, the hard left (Hamon) another 8-10%.  All the remainder of the spectrum holds 25-27% of voters (Macron?).  Or at least voters in the first round.

What remains for the first round but to wait it out?  Some debates remain, but the only obvious candidate initiative right now to pull a first-round upset seems to be something from Fillon.  There are only two possible Fillon targets, Le Pen and Macron.  Virtually all polling data show Le Pen has her vote locked up.  So Fillon’s only real choice for getting additional votes is Macron.  And sure enough, the sniping has started, according to several articles in the French press this weekend.  There are two themes from Fillon and Fillonistes.  They are criticizing what must be candidly admitted is the vagueness of much of what Macron has to say.  And on top of this is Macron’s inexperience.  It remains to be seen what this will get Fillon.  Macron has been criticized on both counts before, so far without obvious effect.  He has remained solid in the polls, sometimes just ahead of Le Pen, sometimes just behind.  Fillon is damaged goods.  He has held on, remarkably, to his core, but most other voters have, for some time, felt he should bow out of the race.

The only other possible initiatives are “from below,” i.e. from the voters.  The obvious initiative here is on the left, with ordinary voters deciding to take matters into their own hands and settling on one candidate of the left.  But which side budges?  And perhaps we will see other tactical voting in this first round, though the French seem quite content to vote their hearts in the first round.  The obvious specter, for most voters, is Le Pen becoming president.  But since virtually all polls show Le Pen losing against any opponent in the second round, what’s the motive for tactical voting?  And what’s the assurance it will work?


It is unimaginable, with the divisions the polls reveal among voters, that any candidate can win a majority in the first round.  Unless Fillon’s move against Macron succeeds, it appears today, three weeks from the first round voting, that Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron will make it to the second round.

In current polls, Le Pen and Macron together represent just a bare majority at most of French voters willing to identify a candidate to pollsters.  Since only two candidates make it to the second round, where do all the other candidates’ voters go?  These voters are of two kinds—those that voted in the first round (again, potentially a majority of those who voted in the first round) and those who were eligible to vote but did not.

If Fillon does not make the second round, the quick assumption of many has been Le Pen inherits his voters.  This is too quick, I would say:  older conservative Catholics, a Fillon mainstay, do not necessarily like Le Pen; small-government types may find her social welfare views too expansive; economic “liberals” will not like her dirigisme.  This does not mean some Fillon voters won’t go for Le Pen, but many might stay home.  A few might even go for Macron.  Even with all Fillon’s votes, and assuming for the moment no new voters, Le Pen’s maximum take on the right, assuming she holds all her first-round voters, will be about 45%.  It could well be less.

It’s assumed that Macron will get virtually all the voters to his left, on the argument they will be fleeing Le Pen at all costs.  I think this argument is also too quick, especially as one goes farther left.  If Macron is the “other” candidate, farther-left voters will have a very difficult cognitive conflict to manage.  After all, Macron was a banker, and made a pile of money.  He is pro-trade and pro-EU.  He has made no secret he thinks the French economy needs an overhaul.  Where does this leave farther left voters, many of whom despise rich people and wealth in general, and who are increasingly protectionist/nationalist?  In many ways, Le Pen’s message reverberates for them—particularly her social welfare views.  (Not a few commentators have said Le Pen, shrewdly, is culturally to the right, distributionally to the left.)  Leftists may not like Le Pen’s anti-immigrant stance, but they are probably receptive to preserving auto jobs, to fostering family farms over agribusinesses, etc.  Macron, for many leftists, may be too anglo-saxon.  How do people manage cognitive conflicts?  Generally, they try to avoid them.  What’s the political equivalent of avoidance?  Abstention.  So it will be interesting to watch polling data in the last three weeks that discusses possible abstention, particularly such data focused on specific candidates or various clusters of voters.  That data may be an early warning signal about who might abstain in the first round.


And what of eligible voters who chose not to vote in the first round?  In the 2002 presidential election, Marine Le Pen’s father Jean Le Pen ran against Jacques Chirac.  Each, in the first round, had limped over the finish line with under 20% of the vote.  Votes tallied increased by 9% in the second round, and Le Pen increased his vote by 15% over his first round, but Chirac crushed Le Pen, 82+% to 17+%.  Even though it was a race where many voters thought France’s destiny was in play, more than 28% of registered voters abstained in the first round, and more than 20% in the second round.

Recent polls for the 2017 contest suggest many more voters are planning to abstain.  What will be the voters’ reaction to this Le Pen?  Her father was irascible, venomous and, even then—many argued—blatantly anti-Semitic.  Since then, Marine Le Pen has spent a lot of time burnishing the Front National—including kicking her father out.  It’s a measure of how far she has come that, in the March 20 television debate among the five leading candidates, many, sometimes reluctantly, conceded she performed well enough, that she did not have horns, that she could smile and laugh without the bitterness or scorn her father so often showed his opponents.

This is not a prediction that Le Pen will win the first round, much less the first.  The polls, presently, do not show this.  But we know from other races that polls do not tell all, because subjects do not tell pollsters all.  Le Pen is far from politically correct.  She thrives on this, of course, but her followers are not fools.  They have likely mastered lying low around people they do not trust.  And near the top of the Front National’s distrust list is the press.

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