A post-mortem of the French 2017 presidential election, 2/2

Suite et fin de mon post-mortem présidentiel 2017. Spécial dédicace à Diane et Frédéric, et un grand merci à Guillaume, qui m’a fait découvrir l’histoire politique de la Finlande, ainsi qu’à Emmanuel, qui se souvient bien de ses cours de lycée.

Mise à jour : fin de billet complétée, notamment suite à l’annonce du retrait de Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, et aussi parce qu’il me manquait la partie sur Emmanuel Macron, sortie plus tard que prévu des tiroirs.

tl;dr: The French 2017 presidential election was won by the spiritual son of centre-left French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn and centre-right politician François Bayrou, both of whom failed to to claim the presidency before him, each in different ways.1

The newborn weighted precisely two votes out of three at birth and seems healthy. His godfathers, centre-left François Hollande and centre-right Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, two former French presidents who lasted one mandate only, must also feel very proud.

Visual summary of both rounds

More seriously now, let’s summarise the full presidential election ‘horse race’ in two graphs. Just in case you forgot about the first round, the results and their trail of pre-election “voting intentions” polls looked like this:

In the second round, the results and the “second-round scenario” answers to those same polls ended up looking like that, thereby predicting a certain victory for Emmanuel Macron, even under high abstention and/or voter uncertainty:2

Second-round polling accuracy

I owe both of the graphs above to Matthieu Gallard, who was kind enough to also share (and comment) similar graphs for the second-round polls of six out of the seven last presidential elections: 1974, 1981, 1988, 1995, 2002 (no data: read why), 2007 and 2012.

As a cursory look through the entire series of graphs should make obvious, the mean absolute error of second-round polls in French presidential elections has always been rather low, even though the polls have a strange tendency to lose, rather than gain, polling accuracy in the last days before the election.3

Second-round turnout and ‘valid’ votes

The polls also correctly predicted that second-round turnout (74.5%) was going to be lower than that of the first round (77.7%), even though it is important to understand what exactly happened here:

  • 1.5 million voters (3% of the registered electorate) completely ‘evaporated’ between both rounds. As a result, the second round of the 2017 presidential election totalled only 600,000 more effective votes than that of the previous presidential election.
  • The number of blank votes in the second round reached a record count of 3 million (over 4.5 times what is was in the first round). Although much smaller, the number of null votes was also multiplied by over 3.6 and reached over 1 million ‘spoilt’ votes.4
  • Adding up lower turnout and high amounts of blank/null voting counts yields a very low count of 31.3 million ‘valid votes’ (suffrages exprimés), of which 20.7 million went to Emmanuel Macron and 10.6 million to Marine Le Pen.

The record-high amounts of ‘invalid’ votes has lots of possible consequences, and lots of possible explanations:

  • None of the governing parties were on the second-round ballot, which made it impossible for any of these parties to coordinate the formation of a second-round front républicain against the Front national.
  • Unlike many of his coalition partners, such as the French Communist Party, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon refused to endorse Emmanuel Macron, as apparently did a non-trivial fraction of his first-round electorate.5
  • In parallel, Marine Le Pen promised to make right-wing candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan her Prime Minister if she won the election, but Dupont-Aignan’s decision to ally with Marine Le Pen did not necessarily reflect his voters’ preferences.

All of these explanations might be true to some extent, but even on large samples, the subgroups of voters corresponding to each working hypothesis are rather small, which makes it difficult to test anything reliably before we get more data from the forthcoming legislative elections—read on for more on that.

Consequences of Marine Le Pen’s defeat

Between the two rounds of the presidential election, the candidate of the Front national increased its raw number of voters from 7.6 to 11.4 million, beating its own historical record from two years ago:

Two years ago, in the 2015 regional elections, the Front national managed to win new voters between the two rounds of the election. The same thing happened this year, and by that standard, the second-round score of the Front national is a tremendous success for Marine Le Pen, as her party now seems able to appeal to new voters in the decisive phase of a two-round election.

In line with what we know from studying extreme-right voters, opinion polls tend to locate most of the new second-round Front national votes within the right-wing first-round vote, and then within first-round abstentions. Given the derelict state of the French right-wing, which just lost its second presidential election in a row on top of being financially in dire straits and lacking a manifest leader, one might expect that dynamic to continue.

The right-wing won less than 9.5 million votes in the first round,6 and was absent from the second round. As a consequence, and even without adjusting for turnout (which was higher in the first round), more people voted for the extreme-right Front national in this election than for the non-extreme right wing. Again, from that angle, the French extreme-right might legitimately claim that its second-round performance was a great success.

The paradox here is that all the “good news” listed above sum up to a dilemma for the Front national, which might follow two hardly reconcilable electoral strategies:

  • On the one hand, the party can continue backing Marine Le Pen’s “neither right-wing or left-wing” strategy until she gets 51% of the second-round vote on her own.
  • On the other hand, the party might feel that its immediate success with right-wing voters justifies switching to a coalition-based strategy, with the Front national trying to supplant the traditional right-wing as the main player.

The first strategy outlined above – called ni droite ni gauche in French7 – can be argued for by observing the very weak state of both governing parties, and by considering Emmanuel Macron as the ‘most desirable opponent’ for an extreme-right populist party. The legislative elections might also lend additional support for that strategy if the Front national manages to eliminate candidates of all parties in the second round.

The second strategy above – called “union des droites” in French – has many staunch supporters within the Front national, and even has some kind of an official representative in the person of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (see update below). That segment of the party is either unconvinced that Marine Le Pen will ever win a relative majority of second-round votes,8 or bothered by some of the most liberal items of her moral agenda, or both.

In the worst case scenario for the Front national (and probably the best-case scenario for its opponents), the two competing strategies listed above have the potential to cause the party to split—which has happened before, and might well happen again.9 The results of the forthcoming legislative elections, which will be the last electoral results before 2020, could be determinant in that regard.

Update, May 10: just a few hours after I published the paragraph above, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen created a conflict within the Front national by “temporarily” (her word) resigning from politics, citing a mix of personal and political reasons for doing so.

Consequences of Emmanuel Macron’s victory

Let’s finish this post with the president-elect.

Except for his very young age, none of Emmmanuel Macron’s ‘static attributes’ are entirely new to French politics. Quite a few bankers have risen to high positions in French political history, and as hinted in my opening paragraphs and in a previous post, ambitious Centrist French politicians close to the median voter are also far from new.

There are, however, many new ‘dynamic attributes’ in Emmanuel Macron’s successful presidential candidacy (which, again, I failed to imagine as possible):

  • Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche ! movement won the presidential election autonomously, without forming any formal alliance with one or more of the existing governing parties. That’s a first, and a remarkable one.

    Until now, even Charles de Gaulle or Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had formed such alliances to win their respective presidencies. Similarly, most foreign examples of fast-winning presidents, such as Martti Ahtisaari‘s run for the Finnish presidency in 1993-1994, also relied on at least one governing party to do so.10

  • By going from zero past mandates to president without touching base between those two steps, Emmanuel Macron has also set a precedent that threatens not only the organisation of governing parties, where long political careers are a requirement for higher office, but also one of the main benefits of the Front national, which also offers short time-to-office career tracks for aspiring mandate-seekers.

    This, to me, is the most interesting dynamic set in motion by Emmanuel Macron: his election is a black-swan event within the overall and ever-increasing trend that has led to the professionalisation of French politics up to a very high degree. It will be very interesting to see if the legislative elections ‘upgrade’ this change to a system-level one, or if things will “revert to type.”

  • Last, by calling for a sweeping change in political representation, Emmanuel Macron has framed his candidacy as that of an ‘anti-system candidate for the educated.’

    The ‘system’ here stands for the existing party system and for some of its incumbent elites: even though Emmanuel Macron himself is hardly anti-elitist or a populist candidate, his campaign – as well as many others – did take advantage of the electoral disconnection between governing parties and voters.

    To some extent, the position described above also echoes that of Charles de Gaulle’s Rassemblement du Peuple Français at its onset, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

    In its early days, the Gaullist movement, which – unlike En Marche ! – allowed its members to keep their existing party affiliations, also presented itself as a catch-all ‘movement’ with the ability to transcend the existing party system of the French Fourth Republic, and also went on to win large fractions of the vote in its first years of existence, although in rather different historical circumstances.11

    Similarly, and to a minor but still significant extent, there is also a parallel to be drawn between Emmanuel Macron’s current strategy and that of Pierre Poujade’s Union de défense des commerçants et artisans, which shook up the French Fourth Republic in its last years.12

    To be clear, Emmanuel Macron does not seem to carry any of the violently anti-Semitic traits of Poujade’s movement, which offered Jean-Marie Le Pen his first electoral mandate in 1956. That aspect of Poujade’s politics, along with other legacies of French fascism, rests with the Front national, with which Emmanuel Macron is programmatically at odds.

    Yet just like the Poujadist movement, En Marche ! movement – just renamed République En Marche ! a few hours ago – also presents itself as a threat against the established balance of power, with the ability to completely disrupt the status quo by removing many incumbents from the political mainstream. In that respect, Emmanuel Macron is the last piece of the strange ‘anti-system’ puzzle that has assembled over the years, and that now contains populist and proto-fascist right-wing parties, anti-capitalist left-wing alternatives, and now a pro-EU Centrist former banker.

That’s it for now. For a broader overview of the French political space in its current shape, I recommend this excellent article by Fabien Escalona (in French, subscription required). This quick recap by Verónica Hoyo and William M. Chandler (in English) also has most of the important facts sorted out.

  1. François Bayrou ran three times, in 2002 (arriving 4th), in 2007 (arriving 3rd) and in 2012 (arriving 5th), while « DSK » did not manage to run at all due to, well, you know why. []
  2. On that topic, you might have stumbled upon this New York Times op-ed, or this other column. As explained in an earlier post (in French), both texts are utterly wrong, for rather obvious reasons, and uninformed to the point of embarrassment. []
  3. Both links in this paragraph lead to Will Jennings’ Twitter account. Along with the other Twitter accounts mentioned in the first part of my post-mortem, I highly recommend following his tweets if you want to become an accomplished elections nerd. []
  4. Following an electoral reform passed in 2014, ‘blank’ and ‘null’ votes are now counted separately under French electoral law, yet blank votes still do not count as ‘valid’ votes. On top of that, anecdotal evidence shows that very few people know about the law and its effects anyway. []
  5. The irony of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Troskyist, refusing to rally against an extreme-right candidate, was not lost on anyone. []
  6. 8.9 million votes if one counts only François Fillon and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan; 9.3 million if one also counts minor candidates François Asselineau and Jacques Cheminade. []
  7. See also Zeev Sternhell’s book on French fascism, who uses the expression in its title. The book was controversial among historians when it came out, but seems to have won the argument over the years. []
  8. After all, so far, Marine Le Pen has never won over more than one registered voter out of four, and her second-round performance, which would have won only 45 legislative constituencies out of 577, indicates that she even lost some voters in large urban areas between both rounds. On top of that, the 2015 regional elections attest that governing parties can deny the Front national any second-round success. []
  9. One reason for that is the sentiment that the Front national is coming close to reaching its ‘maximum electoral potential:’ its vote has stayed geographically stable for two decades or so, and has not increased much among either pensioners or educated voters. []
  10. I owe this analogy to my dear friend Guillaume. I know close to nothing about Finnish politics myself. []
  11. I owe this analogy to my dear friend Emmanuel. My point about En Marche ! asking its members to drop their previous party affiliations is based on an article published in the Canard enchaîné on April 26, 2017, which indicates that En Marche ! will not endorse candidates from other political parties in the forthcoming legislative elections. More will be known very, very soon. []
  12. On the Poujade movement, see this book by Romain Souillac, which is well covered in this radio show, as well as this other radio show. []

3 réflexions au sujet de « A post-mortem of the French 2017 presidential election, 2/2 »

    • Des billets de blog ? Assurément, je ne vais pas arriver à me retenir, surtout si les données sont faciles d’accès…

      Ce billet va d’ailleurs être complété : il manque la fin, où j’évoque justement les législatives.

  1. Ping : Dernières choses sur l’élection présidentielle 2017 | Polit’bistro : des politiques, du café

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