There seems to be a fair amount of interest, for good reason, in the outcome of the French presidential election. As I’m sitting here in the midst of it, doing my bit by pulling down a poster or two, getting a reasonable feed from the local media (helpfully converted into Franglais by my partner Suzanne), and as this sort of stuff is my background, thought I’d add my sixpenethworth. Please forgive the indulgence. There’s nothing Charlton-related (no doubt there is a link if you look hard enough), other than the fact that it's written by an Addick. And while impartiality is always the objective, it is written by someone who would recoil in horror should Marine Le Pen win.
For supporters of the EU (I’m one of those too, but that’s another story) and those who view the Front National as racist and well and truly beyond the pale, the first round on Sunday went as well as could realistically have been expected. It was always too much to hope for that Le Pen would not make it into the second round but there was no late increase in support for her and her actual share of the vote, 21.3%, will have been at the lower end of her expectations. Although French TV’s first post-polls reports said they were neck-and-neck, centrist Emmanuel Macron came through, taking 24.0%. That was important as all the headlines were all about him, rather than ‘Le Pen wins first round …’
I happen to be a big fan of the French electoral system. Nothing is perfect, but the basic principle is that until someone secures over 50% of a vote they are not elected – and if they do, they are, no need for a second round. As most of the contests do go to a second round, it allows people to vote in the first round for who they really support. Then in the run-off, if their preferred choice hasn’t made it through, they vote for who they dislike least. Why not just have a transferable vote? A run-off after a couple of weeks allows people to make a fresh choice between the two remaining candidates, for those candidates to make their case. I find the system – in direct contrast with our own – inclusive and fair (which is not to say that the French don’t whine about it, having to go out to vote twice etc). A turnout of 77.8% perhaps speaks for itself.
The two other main contenders in the first round – the candidate of the right, Francois Fillon and hard-left Jean-Luc Melenchon – came close to Le Pen, with 20.0% and 19.6% respectively. The official Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, was squeezed out almost totally, winning just 6.4% (basically everything was against him: President Francois Hollande’s unpopularity, the fact that no-one had heard of him before he won the PS primary, plus many traditional PS voters switching to former PS government minister Macron or Melenchon, who came across well in the campaign). For them it was a case of what might have been: Fillon, despite his misdemeanours, might still have made it through were it not for Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, founder of and candidate for Arise France, which sort of sits between the Republicans and the FN, winning 4.7%; Le Pen might feel that without him she would have come first.
For the second round, forget the idea that Le Pen has 21.3% and cannot win. This is completely different from 2002, when her father came second in the first round with 16.9% of the vote and only managed to increase that percentage to 17.8% in the second, when he was trounced by Jacques Chirac, who took 19.9% of the vote in round one but then 82.2% in the second. Le Pen making it through then was an accident, a mistake by the PS and its supporters. There was little enthusiasm for its candidate, Lionel Jospin, and many PS voters didn’t bother to turn out, assuming that it would be a second-round contest between Chirac and Jospin. They were aghast when Jospin, with 16.2%, was eliminated, and the national shame of Le Pen making it through translated into just about every non-FN supporter voting for Chirac.
Le Pen senior – an unabashed extremist - could never win, the system ensured that. His daughter – more amenable to doing and saying what might be necessary to woo voters, on the left as well as the right – can. She probably won’t, but she might. And unlike her father she is virtually certain to take a substantially higher share of the vote in round two than in round one.
The polls before and after the first round have tended to put Macron above 60% (up to perhaps 63.5%) and Le Pen below 40%. Again unlike in 2002 this is not a case of totting up the non-FN vote. Perhaps rather quaintly it does still seem to count here how a defeated candidate advises his/her supporters to vote in round two. Macron has been endorsed by Fillon and Hamon (as well as Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and others), but there is more talk of at least some Fillon voters opting for Le Pen, while Melenchon – who in contrast with the charm of his campaign delivered what was a nasty, bitter post-election speech – has singularly not backed him. It’s perhaps not surprising, given that Melenchon’s manifesto arguably had more in common with that of Le Pen. And although he has not yet backed Le Pen, Dupont-Aignan may well do so.
So unlike in 2002 there is no outright anti-FN coalition, voters of the left being prepared to hold their nose and back Chirac. The FN now has deeper roots in France, it has contested and won some elections, it has mayors, and more people who (rightly or wrongly) would not describe themselves as racist are prepared to at least consider voting for Le Pen. She is making every effort to appear ‘presidential’, standing down from the leadership of the FN, and has begun the second-round race better than Macron. His post-election speech was far too complacent, sounding like an acceptance of the presidency. Bottom line is Le Pen is a seasoned campaigner, Macron is something of a novice. Just how he shapes up in the week ahead will be crucial. Just like Remain and Hilary Clinton, he cannot (rather should not) assume that victory is going to fall into his lap.
Of course there are parallels with the UK referendum and the US presidential election. Garnering the votes of the disgruntled, those who feel neglected (whether for good or bad reasons), those who want to register a protest, when added to a core support base, can produce a majority ‘coalition’. When on the streets campaigning for Remain (yes, I am a proud Remoaner and regard staying in the EU as in the UK’s national interest) I was told by some that they would vote Leave because the EU is a ‘failed socialist experiment’ and by others because it is a weapon for capitalism. So much easier to vote against something, especially something which can never be exactly what you want it to be.
And of course there are differences. Being anti-EU cost Le Pen votes in the run-up to the first round vote (the outright candidate for ‘Frexit’ was Francois Asselineau, who won 0.9% of the vote). Although some UK newspapers may tell a different story, Macron would be happy if the second round were to be all about whether or not France remains in the EU. Le Pen wants it to be about terrorism and immigration. And Macron is himself an ‘outsider’, so many feel they are registering a protest by backing him rather than the traditional and selected candidates of the left and the right.
It is normal in a two-horse race for the gap between the contestants to narrow during a campaign. I could be wrong (and hope to be) but would not be surprised if coming polls show Macron slipping below 60% and Le Pen moving above 40%. In that event you would get more speculation that Le Pen can after all win, which can encourage momentum, especially if the 3 May TV debate goes in her favour (and no doubt the rabid sections of the UK press will be interpreting everything in an anti-EU fashion, as they have for decades). Of course that can work both ways. At present one of the dangers for Macron is an assumption of an easy win and, with the second round taking place around a French holiday (when many will be away), a low turnout. And we know who that would favour.
You’d be crazy to take an even bet on Le Pen winning, but if someone gave me 5-1 – which seems to be the bookies’ offer at present - I’d take it, if only to be able to pay for the cognac I would need if she did win. If you want a punt, my advice is to do it now as you probably won’t get better odds. I’d be very (pleasantly) surprised if Macron ends up polling over 60%. If it turns out at say 55-45 you’d have the conclusion that France has one presidential term to turn things around or, other factors being equal, Le Pen waits for next time in confident mood, especially if Macron gets a difficult National Assembly to work with.
How the outcome is seen in the UK will depend on whether you are for or against Brexit: the former will highlight Le Pen’s increased share of the vote (and turn their attention to Italy, Greece and all and every problem that the EU confronts), the latter that just as the Dutch put Geert Wilders back in his box so the French have rejected extremism, including anti-EU extremism (as will the Germans), leaving the UK as the isolated case rather than the vanguard of some ‘unstoppable trend’.