The French Miracle

Commentary No. 438, December 1, 2016

When François Fillon won the first round of the presidential primary of the right on November 20, 2016 with 44% of the vote, the French newspaper Libération headlined the story “The French Miracle.” The miracle was that all the polls up to the last minute had predicted he would come in third in a field of seven with little more than 10% of the vote.

This has been a bad year for pollsters, but a gap of this kind outdoes by far the far smaller predictive error in the U.S. elections. How did this happen and what does it portend for the general election to come?

The formal structure of elections in France is somewhat unusual. Unless a candidate wins over 50% of the vote on the first round (normally rather difficult to achieve), there is a second round a week later in which only those with the two highest number of votes on the first round are on the ballot. This works well if there are two main parties. In that case, the first round displays the range of views and the second round permits the smaller parties to rally round their favorite, which is supposed to be a choice between center-right and center-left.

The system breaks down when there are three parties contending, each of significant strength. This is currently the situation in France. At a national level, the three parties are currently the Socialists (center-left), the Republicans (center-right) and the National Front (far right).

The situation is even more complex because within the Republican Party, there were three main candidates: Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé, and François Fillon. Expectations had been that Sarkozy and Juppé would share the second round. This is what did not happen.

Sarkozy is a former president of France and also president of the Republican Party. Juppé and Fillon were both Prime Ministers, Juppé under Jacques Chirac and Fillon under Sarkozy. Sarkozy stood for a program that would appeal to voters attracted by the National Front and therefore would win on the second round of the national elections. Juppé stood for a program that would appeal to undecided centrist voters and even Socialist voters (both in the primary and in the general election). Almost no one paid any attention to Fillon’s program. The predictions were that Juppé would be a stronger candidate in the general elections and would therefore probably be the next president of France.

How wrong everyone was. Not only did Fillon come in first, but Juppé was next and Sarkozy only third, therefore being eliminated from the second round. Sarkozy promptly endorsed Fillon for the second round, detesting Juppé and merely scorning Fillon. The second round gave even more decisive results. Fillon got two-thirds of the vote cast.

Meanwhile, in the forthcoming primary of the left, the divisions are massive. It is probable that President François Hollande, whose figures of support are miserable and who has said he will announce whether he is standing for re-election sometime soon, will probably withdraw from the race. Otherwise, he risks the humiliation of not even winning the primary of the left. But since there is no one who stands out clearly on the left and probably no one who can rally the troops after a second round, it is likely that the left will not even have a candidate in the second round of the national elections.

If then the second round of the national elections has Fillon standing against Marine LePen of the National Front, it becomes urgent to see on what program Fillon is standing. Before the first primary, Fillon had published his three priorities, along with 15 specific measures to implement these priorities. The three were “(1) liberate the economy, (2) restore the authority of the state, to protect French persons, and (3) affirm our values.”

Translating slogans into clearer language, Fillon proposed combining a Thatcherite economic program to appeal to business-first voters, an anti-immigrant program to appeal to middle-class voters fearful of personal economic decline, and a socially-traditionalist program to appeal to right-wing Catholic voters. He had one other element in his support. Juppé had received the support of a major centrist figure, François Bayrou. But Bayrou had endorsed Hollande in the previous presidential election, and was considered a traitor by many on the right, who attributed Hollande’s defeat of Sarkozy in 2012 to Bayrou’s misdeeds.

If his combination of themes seems to you similar to those of Donald Trump and of the Brexit voters in Great Britain, you are not mistaken. The major difference lies in the two-round system in France. The question now becomes how effective LePen can be in a struggle with Fillon. The French mainstream center-left newspaper, Le Monde, warns of a weakness in the Fillon position. His support in the primary lacked what they call “the popular vote.” His support came largely from urban professionals and entrepreneurs plus retired persons. Popular classes by and large abstained from voting. Can Fillon keep these voters from finding a more adequate president in LePen?

LePen has already denounced Fillon as a spokesperson of class division, promoting the “worst such program that has ever existed.” Florian Philippot, vice-president of the National Front, thundered: “Savage globalization has its candidate; his name is François Fillon.”

Will the Fillon miracle fizzle in the general elections? Or can he find a way to get popular support, either by voting for him or at least by abstaining from voting? Whatever the outcome, France is clearly joining the rightward trend of the United States and the rest of the Global North. All eyes will now be on Germany, to see if it will resist this trend.