Reading the tea leaves of the French 2017 presidential election

Un billet en anglais, pour les copains et copines qui se demandent, depuis l’étranger, si ce genre d’article, sur la possibilité pour le Front national d’emporter l’élection présidentielle à venir, est justifié. En bref : de mon point de vue, non. J’en profite, du coup, pour publier ma lecture des feuilles de thé électorales de la présidentielle 2017, à onze jours de la validation des dernières candidatures par le Conseil constitutionnel.

Recently, quite a few friends from outside France have been asking me or other friends whether Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the French Front national extreme-right party, has any chance to win the next French presidential election. Here are some thoughts on that.

tl;dr – It’s highly unlikely that the Front national will win the next presidential election, unless it manages to attract a massive amount of (mostly right-wing) voters in the second round.

Let’s start by looking at some raw numbers.

Recent first-round votes

The French electoral system features several two-round elections, and several “intermediary” (i.e. local) elections between two presidential/legislative elections, which have been synced since 2000.

Because the French presidential election has two rounds, the best estimate of how a candidate or party is doing is to look at the last two-round intermediary elections, which were the departmental elections and regional elections of 2015.1

The Front national did very well on the first rounds of both elections. In the départementales, it got 5.1 million votes (25% of the vote), and led the vote in roughly 1 canton out of 6. In the régionales, that figure rose to 6 million votes (27% of the vote), which was also the number of voters that Marine Le Pen got on the first round of the 2012 presidential election.

Lesson No. 1 is therefore that the Front national currently has a very large electoral base. In the first round of the last intermediary elections, that base was just a couple million votes below what governing coalitions got: right-wing coalitions scored 6.8/7.4 million votes, and left-wing coalitions scored 7.4/7.8 million votes (départementales/régionales, first round results only).

This is certainly good reason for concern if you support any other party–or rather, any left-wing or right-wing coalition, because despite what many people seem to think, French elections are won by (second-round) coalitions, not parties.

Which brings me to my next section.

Recent second-round votes

Second-round elections require parties to either find coalition partners, or to attract additional voters. Most of the time, the Front national has to opt for the latter strategy, because all other contending parties will coalesce against it—a strategy known as the cordon sanitaire/front républicain strategy.

There have been, however, many local ‘exceptions’ to the cordon sanitaire, whereby the Front national was able to formally ally with right-wing politicians, and several right-wing ideologues are calling for a “union des droites” (“right-wings union”) between the Front national and any other potential right-wing party. More on that towards the end of this post.

On the second round of the last two intermediary elections, the Front national lost 1 million votes in the départementales, but gained 800,000 voters (+ 13%) in the régionales.

Vote loss in the second round is a common scenario for the Front national in intermediary elections: the same thing happened in all previous similar elections, and in all pre-2015 regional elections. It is, in fact, the common scenario that all parties go through, because of the difference in turnout between intermediary and non-intermediary elections.

The important part here is therefore the result of the second round of the 2015 regional election, in which the Front national made some nontrivial progress to the point of getting more votes than in the 2012 presidential election. Despite that, it failed to win any regional council presidencies, just as it failed to win any departmental council presidencies in the previous 2015 local election.

Lesson No. 2 is therefore that the Front national is currently in capacity to win votes between the two rounds of an election, just as it did in the 2002 presidential election when Jean-Marie Le Pen gained around 700,000 voters (+ 14%) in the second round.

This is another good reason for concern if you support any other party/coalition, although right-wing coalitions enjoyed a much larger increase of (over 3.2 million) votes between the two rounds of the 2015 regional election.

Now let’s look at 2017.

Predicted 2017 candidates

Like many other political spaces, French politics are currently stricken with anti-incumbent syndrome. François Hollande, the incumbent left-wing president, is not running for reelection. Neither will Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who did only one term right before Hollande.

Instead, the French (left-wing) Socialist Party has elected Benoît Hamon, a candidate who is further away from the French median voter than his former rivals, and who is facing serious competition from far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Meanwhile, the French (right-wing) Republicans Party has elected François Fillon, a candidate who was already less appealing to right-wing Centrists than many others, and who is currently facing highly damaging legal charges.

Last, the “centrist” candidate of the election, Emmanuel Macron, who started as an outsider even though he was François Hollande’s minister of the economy, is now receiving support from both left-wing and right-wing moderates.

The problem with that setup is that governing party candidates are facing mediocre second-round prospects – even against a Front national candidate, neither Hamon or Fillon can expect much of each other’s voters to vote for them. This state of affairs is leading quite a few observers to consider Macron as the best second-round candidate against Marine Le Pen, but let’s remember that Macron, a former banker with economically liberal views, has never run for election before.

What about Marine Le Pen?

Predicted 2017 first-round vote

How much of the vote will go to the Front national in a few weeks?

Vote shares are very hard to predict under varying turnout rates, which is highly relevant in the case of the French presidential election: in the last four elections, first-round turnout has varied by -3, -7, +12 and -4 percentage points.

Furthermore, the vote shares of the candidates who made it to round 2 have also been highly variable: 21/23 in 1995, 20/17 in 2002, 31/26 in 2007, and 27/27 in 2012. Barring the 2002 vote share of Le Pen, all of those shares are within the 21-31% range, which is already wide—and if you find no good reason to discard Le Pen 2002, the range of vote shares grows to 17-31%, which definitely says something about the difficulty of predicting electoral results.

With these known unknowns in mind, my prediction is that, with – at the very least – 7 million expected votes in the first round of the presidential election, Marine Le Pen is highly likely to make it to the second round of the election, with a vote share of – at the very least – 19%. I get to that vote share by computing

V = F / ( E × T )

where F are the 7 million votes for the Front national in the second round of the regional elections, E is an electoral body of 45.2 million voters (estimated from the 2015 regional election), and T an expected turnout of 80%.

The estimate above is excessively conservative, because it is estimated from a fixed number of Front national voters that is far below the size of its potential electorate on the presidential election. To fix that, let’s have

V = ( F × βT ) / E

where F now stands for the 6 million votes for the Front national in the first round of the regional elections, βT is a multiplier of 1.6 that accounts for the expected difference in turnout (from 50% to 80%), and E is unchanged.

That formula returns a vote share of 21%. Independently, my dear occasional co-blogger Joël has made a (much better informed) first-round prediction of a Front national vote share within the 21-28% range, and other vote specialists seem okay with that estimate.

What tends to make estimates above 20% credible is the current predicament of the right-wing candidate, and the fact that the Front national has been generally considered to perform better on presidential elections than on intermediary ones. Recent intermediary elections, however, might have been highly successful for the Front national precisely because that pattern is less true today.

Predicted 2017 second-round vote

It makes little sense to produce second-round estimates before getting first-round results, but the second-round results of previous intermediary elections are, again, useful to anticipate how the 2017 presidential election will play out.

In the second round of the 2015 regional elections, left-wing and right-wing coalitions respectively scored 8 million and 10 million out of 26.5 million voters, with turnout being slightly below 60%—20 percentage points less than presidential-election second rounds.

If the second round of the presidential election includes either a left-wing or a right-wing candidate, that candidate should therefore be able to get between 9.3 and 13 million voters from his own ranks, assuming that voters have fairly stable preferences and a turnout approaching 80%. Therefore, in order to win the election on her own, Marine Le Pen would need to find at least 30% more voters than she has ever had so far.2

Something pretty unusual would be required for that to happen, and the most likely of those rare events might be a split of the right-wing Republicans party into two factions, one of which would coalesce with the Front national on round 2.3

The likelihood of that last scenario is, in my view, a good estimate of how likely it is that the Front national will be able to win the presidential election later this year. To be clear, I am talking of a really low likelihood, although one that has probably increased as of late.

The likelihood of such an event is low because the frontmen of the French right-wing are just not interested in ruling through an Austrian-style “blue-black” coalition. There would need to be a transformative event in French politics for that situation to change.

Last remarks

My highly unoriginal prediction is that the Front national will be on the second round of the French presidential election, but will then lose to whoever it faces. What is that prediction worth?

Not much, but surely more than the strange error-correction bias that is leading many people to believe that, because the establishment was betting against Brexit and Trump, then surely all bets are off in the French presidential election. Unlike the two major unforeseen outcomes of 2016, the French presidential election has two rounds and can be compared with many past data points. That, alone, should suffice to invalidate what is already a very flawed comparison of events.4

It is, however, correct to observe that were the Front national to win the French presidential election, then what would follow would be some kind of a “Trump-style” transition of power, with the party struggling to build a functional governmental apparatus, by which I mean: forming a stable and loyal legislative majority, and gathering bureaucratic support from top civil servants to run its administration. The Front national currently has none of the resources required to do any of that, and therefore to govern.5

Under the likely scenario of the Front national losing in the presidential election but making important gains in the legislative elections, I will have to update my comment with notes on what to expect next. It will have to do with the strategy of the Front national, which, under Marine Le Pen, has been trying to win enough votes to win on second rounds. That strategy has been successful so far, but there is still a gaping 30% of voters to shift towards the Front national for that strategy to reach its end-goal: the French presidency.

Since that shift might never occur, several Front national figures, such as Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, are instead suggesting to go for local alliances with right-wing Republican dissidents, under the “union des droites” scenario that is already working well in some parts of Southern France. The “Marion strategy” is local, short-term and guaranteed to work to some reasonable extent: in contrast, the global, long-term “Marine strategy” described above might never succeed.6

Further reading

If you can read French, you should be reading Joël’s book on the Front national, or read his media papers: see, e.g., this radio show, these Mediapart articles (subscription required), and two articles published by Le Monde diplomatique: one on the North/South geography of the Front national vote, and one on the front républicain strategy mentioned in this post.

Two related readings that I would like to recommend on populism and populist parties in Europe are Perry Anderson’s essay “Why the system will still win,” published this month in the English edition of Le Monde diplomatique, and Cas Mudde’s 2012 Stein Rokkan lecture, “Three decades of populist radical right parties in Western Europe: So what?

Last, I do not read much from Arthur Goldhammer‘s French Politics blog – there are simply too many daily posts for me to be able to follow –, but I know that he does a stellar job at covering the topic. Following a few of his early-March links, I ended up on the brilliantly titled Arun With A View, and found that post: “Marine Le Pen: can she win?” Make it your next stop for some earlier –and, in my opinion, much wilder– electoral predictions about the 2017 French presidential election.

Update, 7 March 2017: added a few links, removed a few words. You might also want to listen to former Prime Minister Alain Juppé explaining why he will not replace Fillon as the right-wing candidate: see this blog post, this article, and the press conference itself.

  1. There are many kinds of intermediary/local elections, but I will focus only on those that took place in 2015 at the county (canton/département) and regional levels. The Front national performed extremely well in the French EU elections of 2014, but turnout is so low in those elections that I prefer to discard information based on such small numbers of votes. Similarly, I prefer to discard the 2014 municipal elections because I find them to be more “granular” (read: personalised), and would therefore need more data than I care to look at. Last, I will not be looking at by-elections because I do not have the adequate data at hand, but they would be, of course, relevant to paint a more accurate picture of post-2012 voting patterns, and of second-round vote shifts especially. []
  2. That estimate discards the still-likely scenario that Marine Le Pen would be facing Emmanuel Macron in the second round. I do not know what to make of that scenario, since I cannot resolve myself to imagine how Macron would go from having no electoral base to, all of a sudden, having enough votes to get past the first round. If my prediction goes wrong, I expect the error to be related to that blind spot, but in all honesty, I cannot see how a banker – a banker! have you ever talked about bankers with anyone earning less than the median wage? – would magically flip French politics on its head. []
  3. The Republicans Party already hosts both elected officials and voters who are, in effect, indistinguishable from their Front national equivalents. This article about Philippe de Villiers shows how porous the frontier currently is between the French right-wing and far-right, a state of affairs for which there is also tons of non-anecdotal evidence. []
  4. Just consider the British case: Brexit, which never polled so bad as to become a completely unlikely outcome, is only the last of many electoral surprises, if you consider the results of the last general election and the nomination of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. The fact that Britain now operates a multi-party system has likely taken its toll on electoral prediction. If you really want to draw parallels between France and the UK, then you might want to equate Hamon’s primary election to Corbyn’s—but the comparison stops right there. []
  5. This recent op-ed by the French ambassador to Japan very eloquently makes my point. []
  6. On these two strategies, see the excellent documentary “Marine Le Pen, la dernière marche ?” that aired on French TV channel France 3 in January of this year. []

3 réflexions au sujet de « Reading the tea leaves of the French 2017 presidential election »

  1. Excellente « synthèse » (même si le tl;dr est bienvenu). Je partage tes convictions et je ne crois pas en l’élection de Le Pen bien qu’il y a fort à parier qu’elle sera effectivement présente au second tour.

    Le seul point qui me fait douter, c’est de savoir, en cas de retrait de la candidature Fillon, à quel point les électeurs de droite de type « conservateur » (et à croire les résultats de la primaire de novembre, ils sont nombreux) se rabattront sur la candidature de Le Pen au 1er tour. Je vois de plus en plus de témoignages qui abondent dans ce sens. Et le fait que des alliances « locales » entre le FN type « Marion Maréchal LP » et LR type « Sens Commun » soient de plus en plus évoquées et rendues possibles par des facilitateurs type « Causeur/Valeurs Actuelles » ou De Villiers, ne me rassure pas…

  2. Ping : Guesstimating the Macron presidential candidacy | Polit’bistro : des politiques, du café

  3. Ping : Polls, surveys and the known unknowns of the French presidential election | Polit’bistro : des politiques, du café

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