French Run-Off Preview

After the 1st round of voting took place last Sunday, the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen will face off head-to-head next Sunday May 7th to determine who will be the next president of France. To get yourself further up to date, feel free to refer to my post written a few hours before the 1st round of voting. And now to the run-off!

Could Le Pen win? 

For many in the West, this is the only question that matters. The short answer is: yes, but it’s highly unlikely.

So you’re saying there’s a chance…

Yes, but it’s highly unlikely. U.S. journalists like the narrative of portraying Macron as Hillary Clinton and Le Pen as Donald Trump, and in the grand scheme of things it is understandable why they have chosen a simplistic comparison to aid American citizens in trying to comprehend an election they likely no very little about, but both qualitatively and quantitatively the comparison falls short.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton was the favorite in all but 1 shady poll in the run-up to the 2016 general election, but the majority of the polls had it between 2-5%, often within the statistical margin of error, and while some state polling faltered the national polls generally got it right with the final popular vote margin being 2.1%. So Clinton was the favorite in the national polls and won the popular vote by a slightly slimmer margin than the average national poll projected.

In the run-up to this French runoff, by contrast, Macron leads Le Pen by 18-20%. Further yet, French pollsters nailed the 1st round of voting, and are considered to be the gold standard in European polling–at the least better than in the United Kingdom whose woeful track record stretches well-beyond the massive polling miss in the 2015 general election that had me refreshing the page to make sure I was reading it correctly. Ultimately, the polls would have to be off by an historic margin–like Bernie Sanders in the Michigan Democratic primary kind of proportions. So I can’t say we’ve never seen it before, but Macron is the clear, clear favorite, and about 5-10x more so than Hillary Clinton was on November 8th. They aren’t the same mathematic scenarios, and frankly they’re not even close mathematic scenarios.

You’re still saying there’s a chance

Yes. As I said right after the 1st round results, in order to pull off the monumental upset then Le Pen would need to draw heavily from Fillon’s conservative support and also sway some Mélenchon supporters to her camp. This still remains true, but if 2nd choice polling from earlier this month is accurate, 21% from Fillon and 11% from Mélenchon isn’t going to come anywhere close to cutting it and pales in comparison to Macron’s expected 53% from Fillon and 30% from Mélenchon–a number that should actually be much higher when you consider 32% said they would flock to the already-eliminated center-left Hamon. Macron is the much closer remaining alternative to Hamon for Mélenchon’s support.

For the record, do take note of the fact that Mélenchon voters are far more likely to support Macron than Le Pen–by at least a 3:1 margin. You might not know this by the recent editorials in the New York Times readying themselves to blame a Le Pen victory on the left if it were to come to fruition.

Anyways, Le Pen will need to far outpace those projections on support inheritance. But what Le Pen will have to particularly bank on is low-turnout. If she isn’t going to inherit the majority of Fillon or Mélenchon supporters, then the next best alternative is for them to abstain. Galvanize the base while the 1st round losers sulk at home–Hamon’s support of course included. She’d also appreciate the 5% of the electorate who voted for the conservative Dupont-Aignan listening to their man who has recently endorsed Le Pen. It’s difficult to envision a scenario where Le Pen wins if turnout is high or even modest for that matter: she needs to turnout her people, bring in a coalition of voters from the other camps, and hope that a lot of people don’t consider her presidency an existential threat, and thus, stay home.

Why the American comparison further doesn’t suffice

In addition to how Macron holds a much larger lead over his opponent than Clinton ever did, the political optics in France also drastically differ from those observed in the United States. France doesn’t consist of two broad parties, and almost everyone expects to be in opposition to Macron once he presumably starts governing.  Thus, the same incentives don’t exist for a Mélenchon or Hamon to unequivocally endorse Macron in the same way that Sanders all but had to endorse Clinton. The Mélenchon = Sanders is just lazy analysis anyway, but this is key in understanding why Mélenchon or Hamon may not be as unambiguous in their support for the centrist as Sanders was. Hamon is from the left flank of the center-left Socialist Party so he won’t likely be part of a Macron coalitional government, and Mélenchon being to the left of him certainly won’t be part of any Macron alliance.

For the record, Hamon has endorsed Macron and Mélenchon has indicated that he will vote and it will not be for Le Pen. This suggests that Mélenchon would prefer his supporters to either vote Macron or vote blank, as he will do, rather than abstain. It’s coy from Mélenchon, frankly extremely coy, but again understanding that he personally doesn’t stand to gain at all from a Macron presidency in the same way that Sanders would at least have a Democrat who he votes with the majority of the time in the Oval Office is integral in discerning the political motives of the players at hand.

So what should the French left do?

Vote for Macron. And I’m not particularly thrilled with Mélenchon’s lack of a clear endorsement. It gives the media an easy-out to bash him and left purity politics more generally. I think it’s a straightforward decision to admit that Macron is imperfect, but still call for voters to back him in favor of Le Pen.

Macron is an EU neoliberal technocrat and backs austerity measures that reduce public spending which mainly goes to the most vulnerable in French society. He won’t transform France; he’ll likely make it worse.

And this is why many on the left fear that a Macron victory now, the very likely result, will lead to a Le Pen presidency in 2022. This could well be the case. But, at the expense of stating the obvious, the prospect of a Le Pen presidency in 2022 is better than an actual Le Pen presidency in 2017. So the left should go and vote Macron, and mobilize over the next five years so they can grab the presidency in 2022. It’s not the most ideal scenario, but it’s the only one remaining.

Cheers to Daniel Nichanian for his sound analysis of France’s election. Borrowing his succinct tweets in order to elaborate on key points is extremely helpful.

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