Text by Caroline CLARKSON
Less than a month before the first round of France’s presidential election, most opinion polls foresee far-right leader Le Pen losing to centrist Macron in the run-off. But can polls – which failed to predict Brexit and Trump’s election – be trusted?
With less than a month to go before the first round of France’s presidential election, most opinion polls are predicting the same outcome. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, the leader of the eurosceptic, anti-immigration National Front, is expected to do well in the first round of the election but be resoundingly defeated in the run-off, by the pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron. So does this mean that progressives can rest on their laurels and stop fretting about the prospect of Le Pen becoming president? Or, after failing to predict Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have the pollsters got it wrong yet again?
The beauty of the French system is that voters get to vote twice. In the first round – this year they will have no less than 11 options – they choose the candidate they prefer, regardless of whether or not this person has any real chance of being elected. In the run-off, two weeks later, they choose between the remaining candidates, acutely aware that one of the two will indeed be their next leader. Or, as French history professor Robert Tombs put it so well in a recent piece: “In the first round you vote for the person you want; in the second you vote against the person you fear.”
This is where the “front républicain” or “Republican front” comes into play. It is a French tradition of strategic voting that aims to keep extremists well away from the halls of power. In the event of a run-off involving a far-right contender, mainstream parties call on their supporters to vote for the rival candidate, whoever he or she may be. This is exactly what happened in 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, unexpectedly reached the second round. Left-wing voters held their noses and cast their ballot for the conservative candidate, Jacques Chirac, even though they would never have done so under normal circumstances. Chirac was re-elected with a whopping 82 percent of the vote.
For months now, this year’s election has been shaping up to be a remake of 2002. And with scandal-hit conservative candidate François Fillon slipping in the polls, most pollsters now predict that Marine Le Pen will face Emmanuel Macron in the run-off. These polls certainly foresee the “front républicain” springing into action. To give just one example, an Opinionway survey published this Thursday sees Macron defeating Le Pen with a 64-36 percent majority, provided the French duly use their vote strategically to keep the far-right dynasty out of power.
But as we all know, opinion polls these days are to be taken with a large pinch of salt. One French daily, Le Parisien, has stopped publishing them altogether. Here at FRANCE 24, we are also relying less on polls in our day-to-day coverage.
A more reliable indicator may be voter turnout. Historical precedent suggests abstention plays into the hands of extremists and populists – France’s shock first-round result from 2002 is a case in point. More recently, low turnout in the US among those who did not support Donald Trump appears to have helped get him elected. One analysis shows that some Democratic voters who were uninspired by Hillary Clinton did not bother to vote at all. In light of this, the fact that the French presidential run-off is being held on a bank holiday weekend – when some voters might be out of town – could dampen turnout.
On March 27, an opinion piece appeared in French left-wing daily Libération, penned by Serge Galam, a physicist who predicted the election of Donald Trump. It delved into the possibility of a Le Pen victory, calling the “front républicain” a “glass ceiling”. Focusing on the second round, the author calculated that if voter turnout is extremely high among Le Pen supporters (around 90 percent) but relatively low among other voters (around 70 percent), then with an overall turnout of 79 percent, Le Pen could eke out just enough support to obtain 50.25 percent of the vote, which is more than enough to win. The author predicted a similar razor-thin victory for Le Pen with two slightly different sets of turnout figures. In other words: France’s two-round voting system, which so far has acted as its insurance policy against extremism, could fail to stop the far right from reaching the presidential palace.
As Serge Galam concludes: “After going from impossible to unlikely, the election of Le Pen as president in 2017 is now slipping from unlikely to very possible.” For progressives everywhere, this is a terrifying prospect. Still, French people tend to be politically astute. Macron’s election remains the most likely outcome.
But even if the “front républicain” does kick into gear this time and Macron is elected, France is not entirely off the hook. A gloomy weekend editorial in right-wing daily Le Figaro on March 11-12 predicted that if Macron’s presidency turns out to be disappointing or divisive, Le Pen will be back with a vengeance in 2022. And if French people are sufficiently fed up by then, the “front républicain” might not hold up against the tide of discontent. Le Pen could then cross the Rubicon and shatter that other glass ceiling, which once seemed so robust.
Published in partnership with France24