The Absolutely Unpredictable French Presidential Election

Commentary No. 443, February 15, 2017

One year ago, the French 2017 presidential elections seemed very assured. There were three parties that mattered: the center-right Les Républicains (LR), the center-left Socialists (PSOE), and the far-right Front National (FN). Since in France there are normally two rounds with only two candidates permitted in the second round, the key question always is which of the three will be eliminated in the first round.

It seemed sure at the time that the FN would be in the second round, incarnating anti-Establishment sentiment. It seemed equally sure that President François Hollande, were he to seek re-election, would lose badly. This meant that the LR candidate would be in the second round. This would be especially true if LR chose Alain Juppé and not former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Most people thought that Juppé was far more likely than Sarkozy to attract Socialist and centrist voters and thereby more likely to win the presidency.

Hence the general view a year ago was that the Establishment parties would prevail and that Juppé would win. How wrong these expectations turned out to be. If Trump’s election in the United States and Brexit’s victory in the UK were unexpected, they pale beside the current unexpected situation in France. There are six plausible candidates for the presidential elections, and all of them (yes, all of them) claim to be anti-Establishment. Furthermore, which two of the six will be in the second round is, as of today, anyone’s guess. Between now and April 23, 2017, the first round of the presidential elections, the electorate seems extremely volatile.

Here’s why. France’s complicated system is intended to favor the two main Establishment parties. It usually works. It presumes however that everyone is called upon to vote twice. This time, there have been four times to vote – first of all in two rounds in the primaries and then two times in the presidential elections. That means that a voter in the first round of the primaries had to anticipate the result in the third election (first round of the presidentials) to decide for whom to vote in the first round of the primaries. The result of this impossible task for the voters is that the results of the primaries could be very surprising, and indeed they were.

The LR primaries were the first, occurring on Nov. 20 and Nov. 27, 2016. In this primary of right and center-right voters, there were three main candidates. The two with seemingly strongest support were Sarkozy and Juppé. The third, and far behind in the polls, was François Fillon. Fillon campaigned as somewhat anti-Establishment, emphasizing the evil of financial misappropriations, of which Sarkozy was being charged and Juppé convicted in the past. He also was ultra-conservative on social issues, appealing to a Catholic vote.

Fillon surprised everyone. In the polls he had been running third with only about 10% of the voters. In the vote, he jumped about 30 points and came in first. His victory was so decisive that Sarkozy, who came in third, endorsed him (if only to hurt Juppé). And Fillon easily prevailed over Juppé in the second round two to one.

Next came the left primaries. Anticipating a humiliating defeat, Hollande withdrew from the race before the primary. His Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, immediately entered the race and was expected to win, at least in the first round. Valls stood as the Establishment candidate, supported by the right wing of the French left and quietly by Hollande.

Two former ministers of Hollande stood as left candidates against Valls. Arnaud Montebourg had resigned because of the austerity policies of Hollande. Benoit Hamon had been fired by Hollande because he opposed these policies within the cabinet. Both of them felt that Hollande and Valls had betrayed the left. It was expected that Montebourg would come in second to Valls, and perhaps might win in the second round.

None of this happened. Valls came in second, not first, in the first round and Hamon, not Montebourg, won. Hamon had refused to endorse the record of Hollande and Valls in their time in government, and insisted on discussing new future policies, offering one of importance. Suddenly, the left within the left primary seemed strong. Hamon picked up endorsements from many different left factions and was able to trounce Valls in the second round with almost 58% of the vote.

Two other persons are in the race. One is Emmanuel Macron, a former minister of Hollande who thought his policies were insufficiently pro-neoliberal, and formed his own party, En Marche! Macron refused to enter the left primary. He stood on his program – very neoliberal in economic matters but at the same time very progressive on all social questions. The other person in the race is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has for years proposed himself as the left of the left. He calls his party “La France insoumise,” meaning those on the left who resist and will not allow themselves to be subjected. For this reason, he has rejected as not leftist all those who have served in Hollande’s government, even if they later resigned or were fired.

Macron assumes that his program would appeal to middle-class voters across the left-right spectrum. After the left primary, many Valls voters who were angry about Hamon’s leftist stance initially threatened to switch to Macron. Macron thereby seemed to pose a threat to Fillon in the first round of the presidentials. Mélenchon has no illusions that he could win this time but he is preparing the future. He is very unlikely to respond to Hamon’s call for left unity behind him.

Suddenly a new major development occurred. Fillon was exposed as having misrepresented himself as the paragon of financial honesty. He had put his wife and his two sons on the government payroll for what was asserted to be fictional work. This has not been unusual practice in France, but the amounts of money in this case were so large and the deed so contrary to the claims of Fillon’s candidacy that LR began a big discussion about a so-called Plan B – to replace Fillon with someone else.

It turned out that replacing Fillon would be still worse for LR than leaving him as the candidate. This was because there was no single candidate that was obvious. And the struggle to choose any one of them would tear apart LR. In addition, Fillon counter-attacked, apologizing for misdeeds, and asserting that he still could win. Plan B disappeared and Fillon remains the LR candidate. The question is how many voters did he lose for the first round of the presidential elections because of his transgressions.

So, as I said, everyone claims to be anti-Establishment. In reality, Fillon and Macron are close to playing that role. That leaves Hamon as the one with most credentials to represent a real change. But in order to win the first round of the presidentials he has to hold the Socialist party in line (so far he is doing that), attract Mélenchon’s voters, attract ecologist voters (so far he is doing this), and attract centrist voters. This is quite difficult.

So where are we? FN’s Marine Le Pen has received about 25% of the polls steadily for over a year. It seems she is at a plateau, but a high one. She is trying to appeal now to disillusioned Fillon supporters. Macron is rising in the polls. So is Hamon. Mélenchon isn’t budging. And, as the cartoonists are saying, Establishment is the others.

Should Hamon succeed, however, this will be a major worldwide event. It will be the first major race in recent years in Europe (or elsewhere for that matter) in which a left candidate, openly left, has won. This will reverse a worldwide trend of candidates and parties moving to the right.

As the economic turmoil continues to spread, the idea that one can win as a leftist may again become legitimate. It’s a bit equivalent to what might have happened had Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary in the United States. But remember, this all depends on voters guessing now who will be the candidates in the second round of the presidentials. Assuming Le Pen gets 25%, that leaves 75% to be divided among five other candidates.

The first round of the presidentials are not until April 23, 2017. This is a fairly long time for voters to make a difficult decision. The polls show that intensity of support is thin, especially for Macron. That is why we can expect great volatility in the polls. There is no way to be sure who can get the probable 20% needed to be in the second round of the presidentials on May 7, 2017.