Guesstimating the Macron presidential candidacy

Un autre billet en anglais, en complément du précédent, au sujet de l’élection présidentielle, et en réaction aux amis qui m’ont fait remarquer que j’étais trop catégorique dans mon refus de voir Emmanuel Macron au second tour.

En bref : j’ai fait « de mon mieux » (si l’on peut dire), mais je ne vois toujours pas Macron au-delà de 7 millions de voix, ce qui n’est suffisant pour atteindre le second tour de l’élection présidentielle qu’en cas d’abstention massive.


My previous post on the 2017 French presidential election was primordially an attempt to provide a precise estimate of the (lower credible bound of the) vote for Marine Le Pen, the candidate for the extreme-right Front national party.

Several friends, however, have focused their reactions to my post on one of my side comments, about the likelihood of “Centrist” candidate Emmanuel Macron to reach the second round of the election. Here are some more thoughts on that.

tl;dr – I am not making any predictions about whether Emmanuel Macron will be on the second round of the French presidential election. Rather, I am arguing that there is no evidence to believe that he will.

In what follows, I examine Macron’s candidacy in light of (1) its “Centrist” (social-liberal) positioning, (2) its relative position within voting choices, and (3) its opportunistic potential, which I believe to be the most correct way to assess its first-round electoral potential.

Update, March 16: added a link to a research note that contains useful information to support my remarks on Macron’s position vis-à-vis the French median voter.

Macron as a “Centrist” candidate

Macron was minister of the economy under incumbent Socialist president François Hollande from 2014 to 2016, but he did not take part in the Socialist primary election. Instead, he has been running since 2016 as an independent candidate with support from various centre-left and centre-right politicians, thus making him some kind of a “Centrist” candidate.

It also seems fair to designate Macron as the “Centrist” candidate in the election because he has received the support of the former historical “Centrist” candidate François Bayrou, who ran for the (centre-right) UDF/MoDem party in the 2002, 2007 and 2012 presidential elections.

The representation of Macron as a “Centrist” candidate is reinforced by the fact that there are no other Centrist candidate in the election, and by the relative positions of left-wing candidate Benoît Hamon and right-wing candidate François Fillon, who are believed to come from the left-wing and right-wing of their respective parties. As a consequence, Macron is currently perceived as a candidate who is closer to the median voter than any of the governing party candidates.

It should be noted that the French presidential election has already been won by a “Centrist” candidate: in 1974, when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing distanced Socialist candidate François Mitterrand by 425,000 votes, in the closest presidential election since the inception of the French Fifth Republic in 1958.

Some observers are reading Macron’s candidacy as a new “Giscardian moment” in French politics, but that view is, in my opinion, highly misguided. In 1974, the French right-wing was officially divided between rival Gaullist and Centrist political parties, leading to an “endogenous switch” from the former to the latter.1 That division does not exist today.

Macron as a potential Condorcet winner

It is much more likely, in my view, that Emmanuel Macron might (just might) be a potential Condorcet winner for some part – not all – of the French electorate. There seems to be empirical support for that hypothesis in some opinion polls, but I would argue that opinion polls are, by design, cognitively biased towards these kinds of scenarios.

If we accept to consider Macron as a winner in the Condorcet paradox, then we accept that the preferences of a determinant majority of voters are of the following form:

P1 : A > B > C

P2 : B > C > A

P3 : C > A > B

… where A and B designate the left-wing and right-wing candidates of the election, and C designates Macron.

It does not matter, for our purposes, which of Hamon or Fillon are denoted by A and B, as the paradox persists regardless: under rank-ordering, there is a set of voting preferences ( P1, P2, P3 ) that eliminates candidate C from a majority vote that retains only the two largest sets of preferences, even though candidate C had initially obtained the largest set of transitive preferences.

Opinion polls are cognitively biased towards that scenario because they do not limit the depth of rank-ordering, whereas a two-round election with only two candidates on the second round does: in effect, the first round of the election does not serve to select A or B, but to eliminate all other candidates. Unless the election proceeds through cardinal voting, all preferences beyond the first choice are irrelevant.

A somewhat more realistic way to poll the electorate of a two-round election would be to ask them which pair of candidates (X, Y) they want to see reach the second round of the election, in which case the question boils down to which candidate they do not want to see get past round one:

P1 : ( A, B ) > { ( A, C ), ( B, C ) } ~ ¬ C

P2 : ( B, C ) > { ( B, A ), ( C, A ) } ~ ¬ A

P3 : ( C, A ) > { ( C, B ), ( A, B ) } ~ ¬ B

I have yet to see any polling institute frame its questions under that kind of “eliminative” voting behaviour. Note that this behaviour scales alright even if one considers more than three candidates, which would be relevant in the context of (at least this instance of) the French presidential election.

Macron as an opportunistic newcomer

Yet another way to frame Macron’s candidacy consists in comparing it to that of Édouard Balladur, a former Prime Minister who ran as an independent right-wing candidate in the 1995 French presidential election, at a time where almost all current politicians were already fighting for ministerial seats and presidential careers. Here are some pictures from Balladur’s government formation in 1993, showing, from left to right, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Fillon and Alain Juppé:

Encouraged by his high approval rates at the end of his dual-executive “cohabitation (divided government) mandate under Socialist president François Mitterrand’s second term, Balladur ran and came out out third on the first round of the election, with 5.6 million votes out of 30.4 million (18.5%). Balladur lost to Socialist Lionel Jospin, who came out first, and to the legitimate right-wing candidate Jacques Chirac, who got 690,000 more votes (roughly 2.3 percentage points) than Balladur.

Balladur and Macron are biographical twins. Both are archetypical French political elites, who studied in the same schools – Sciences Po Paris and the École Nationale d’Administration –, and then worked in the same offices, at the Secretary General of the Presidency and at the Ministry of Economics and Finance. Both have also worked for the private sector, although Balladur worked for the industry while Macron is a former banker.

Balladur and Macron might also be considered to be ideologically close. During his time as Prime Minister, Balladur (unsuccessfully) pushed for an economic reform that would have allowed employers to pay young workers less than the minimum wage. My own interpretation of Macron’s statements on the low-wage jobs offered by Uber puts him very close to that same idea, which has become a staple of social-liberal labour reforms, along with zero-hour contracts:

The caption reads: “The reality is that indeed, [Uber drivers] sometimes work 60 or 70 [weekly] hours to earn the [minimum wage].” In the rest of the interview, Macron argues that some fraction of the minimum wage is better than not working, or better than working in the criminal economy. Watch the full thing.

Last, there is some similarity between Balladur and Macron in terms of their electoral strategy. The similarity stems from the fact that, when Balladur ran for president in 1995, he was supported by many centre-right politicians, as well as by some right-wing dissidents disloyal to the Chirac candidacy. Quite similarly, Macron’s candidacy has gathered support from centre-right politicians, joined by some centre-left Socialists.

This parallel, however, also reveals some critical differences. In 1995, the centre-right was regrouped into a single political party that had not yet split into the two different parties that it has now become, one of which is currently holding to the electoral alliance that it has formed with the right-wing ahead of the forthcoming legislative elections.

Furthermore, and more importantly than the partisan structure itself, while Balladur could ground his presidential candidacy on the landslide electoral victory of the centre-right and right-wing parties in the 1993 legislative elections, Macron has no past event on which to base a tentative electoral coalition between his centre-right and centre-left supports.

That last difference is, to me, a crucial one. In my view, it shows that, beyond their common opportunism, Balladur and Macron are two different kinds of candidates, with only the latter really fitting the description of an opportunistic political newcomer trying to take advantage of low incumbent governmental performance:

Predicting Macron’s first-round score

Let’s now turn to reading Macron’s tea leaves.

While my previous post explored Marine Le Pen’s first-round electoral prospects, the methodology that I used to do so does not apply here, because Macron’s “En marche !” movement did not run in any past “intermediary” election. Instead, what we have at hand are limited similarities (and, in my view, some crucial differences) between Macron and former presidential candidates François Bayrou and Édouard Balladur.

François Bayrou scored 2 million votes (6.8% vote share) in 2002, 6.8 million votes in 2007 (18.5%), and 3.2 million votes in 2012 (9.1%). This puts his best electoral performance at the same vote share as Balladur obtained in 1993, although Balladur reached that percentage by getting 1.2 million votes less.

In the first round of the 2012 presidential election, a vote count of 6.8 million votes would have placed a hypothetical candidate in third place, just above Marine Le Pen. What I suggest is to use that count as the lower bound of a plausible interval for the Macron vote in 2017, and to use a “Bayrou 2007” vote share of 18.5% out of 47 million registered voters with 80% turnout (i.e. 6.95 million votes) as the upper bound of that same interval.

That puts my highest prediction of Macron’s first-round score at almost 7 million votes.

Given how it is computed, this prediction is highly uncertain: for instance, Macron might just as well turn to be a “Jean-Pierre Chèvenement” style of independent presidential candidate, in reference to a former Socialist minister who ran as an independent in the 2002 presidential election and ended up with just above 5% of the vote share. In other words, my lower bound does not preclude the possibility of a Macron “overhyped” candidacy that will eventually fare well below my estimate.

Furthermore, my prediction makes Macron a possible second-round candidate only if the 2017 presidential election makes 18.5% of the vote enough to reach the second round. If you read my previous post, you know that this has been the case only once since 1995, when Jean-Marie Le Pen got on the second round of the 2002 presidential election with roughly 17% of the first-round vote.

On top of that, to reach my upper bound of almost 7 million votes, Macron would need more than twice the electorate that François Bayrou managed to attract on the first round of the previous presidential election. Even if we grant Macron all of Bayrou’s former 2012 voters, that leaves Macron with 3.75 million votes to find among the rest of the electorate.2

That last number represents over a third of the votes that either right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy or left-wing candidate François Hollande each got on the first round of the 2012 presidential election, and still over a third of the right-wing vote in the second round of the last regional elections (which had a much lower turnout rate than we should expect the 2017 presidential election to reach).

Assessing Macron’s candidacy

I can understand why young, brilliant, ambitious and highly connected technocratic elite Emmanuel Macron is running for president, just as I can understand why the French media are loving his independent, “above-the-rest” candidacy. But that does not affect my current prediction that Macron has very little chance to be on the second round of the 2017 presidential election.

Macron is a former banker with exactly zero electoral credentials and no preexisting electoral support. His political movement is not a mass movement, and his media dominance is nowhere near the kind of mass communication that propelled the rise of right-wing moguls like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Donald J. Trump.

In order for Macron to reach the second round of the upcoming presidential election, one needs to imagine a mass defection of right-wing and/or left-wing voters—not such an unlikely scenario, given the current state of affairs, but Macron is absolutely not the only candidate that disloyal voters from either side might defect to.

Taking all these parameters into account, I struggle to imagine any reason why Macron would effectively be on the second round. Perhaps his candidacy would benefit from a “mass abstention” scenario that would result in very low turnout, but that is just one more unlikely configuration that defies prediction.3

In brief, and somewhat unoriginally, Macron remains my “blind spot” in this election. He might do “well” in the first round, but to an extent that I do not deem sufficient to bring him to round two.

If you think otherwise, I would need to see some hard facts, articulated into some kind of plausible electoral scenario that does not stray too far ahead from past elections.


As way of full disclosure, I have no personal sympathy for Emmanuel Macron, and I decided not to re-register to vote when he was made Minister of the Economy, which I still consider to be the single most critical strategic mistake ever made by a left-wing French government. I have even less sympathy for Marine Le Pen and the Front national, the main topics of my previous post.


Further reading4

The reason why this post includes a short discussion of Macron as a potential Condorcet winner is because François Bayrou has been called a Condorcet winner before, in the context of the 2007 presidential election. For a detailed account of Bayrou’s 2007 high performance in that election, see this book chapter by Sylvie Strudel and this journal article by Nicolas Sauger.

After researching the issue a bit more, I also got the impression that Macron’s potential as a Condorcet winner might be even higher than Bayrou’s: many left-wing voters seem hesitant about their first-round vote,5 and the spectrum of politicians calling for a Macron vote extends to all sorts of right-wing and left-wing figures, including Greens and even (former or current) Communists, all calling for some kind of “vote utile”.

For a clearer formulation and detailed discussion of the Condorcet voting paradox, I highly recommend reading Dasgupta and Maskin’s “On the Robustness of Majority Rule” (2008):

  1. The “endogenous switch” (alternance endogène) expression comes from Jean-François Sirinelli, La Cinquième République, Presses Universitaires de France, 2009, p. 39. []
  2. Adjusting the Bayrou vote for the difference in electorate size between the two elections brings that figure down by only 200,000 votes. []
  3. See my very last footnote for a comment on why I prefer not to predict anything about turnout and voting uncertainty in this blog post. []
  4. This section was added a few hours after initial publication, based on early comments from my co-blogger Joël and a few other friends. I also added a few more links and changed a few words here and there. []
  5. Since making precise statements about (turnout and) voting uncertainty involves looking at polling data, I plan to finish this series by covering that topic in a third and last blog post. Stay tuned! []