A Four-Way Marginal?

April 18, 2017
Entering the final week before the first round of the French presidential contest, focus is firmly on the recent bunching of the candidates in the polls — to the extent that the race is now being fairly described as a ‘four-way marginal’. 
The far-left candidate, Jean Luc Mélenchon — running for his phi-logoed ‘La France Insoumise’ coalition — has gained steady support over the past few weeks. Francois Fillon — Les Républicains’ (LR) primary-selected representative, whose progress, after a strong start, has been afflicted by corruption allegations — is showing signs of a comeback.
The Front National’s Marine Le Pen and the ‘neither left nor right’ Emmanuel Macron both continue to poll well, albeit increasingly less decisively. It has become clear that the former’s vote will suffer after computer errors have led to non-domiciled voters receiving duplicate polling cards. And realism is growing about the risks of protest-voting for Macron. His ascendancy is viewed by some as founded on unreliable and unsubstantial press-driven popularity, and a voter base that is reluctant about the prospect of him actually winning — not least regarding uncertainty over what would happen in the subsequent legislative election.
FN has worked hard to gain political representatives; Macron does not have the backing of an established body. Although he will win support from across the spectrum, he quit France’s traditional left-wing party — the Socialist Party (PS) — to set up his action group, ‘En Marche!’. That Benoit Hamon — PS’s official candidate — has fared so poorly in the polls has provoked much theorising about whom the party’s usual supporters will back. The gradual fracturing of PS, and the frustration of LR supporters towards their candidate, Fillon, has kindled a situation in which the usually bipartite France has been left with many voters seeking new, or temporary, electoral homes.
And, while ‘decided’ voters are admitting varying degrees of certainty, many others are still claiming to be totally undecided. This is not least related to the weighing up between voting negatively and positively. For many, it remains the case that their objective is to prevent a Le Pen victory — above voting for the candidate best representing their views. Those voters face a complex prisoners-dilemma-style chess game over how best to maximise their vote in relation to what other voters seem most likely to do. 
The necessity of thinking ahead is made most significant by the fact that this weekend’s first round will almost definitely be just that: technically, the race could be decided on Sunday, if one of the candidates were to gain over 50 per cent of the vote. That has never previously happened, however, and the current polling clearly suggests this to be less probable than usual. Rather, it is practically certain that the two highest-scoring candidates will face-off in a final round on 7 May.
Speculation, therefore, is centred on the various scenarios that might unfold over the fortnight before that final round. Although any of the four leading candidates could now make it through to the finish, the two things that remain most likely are: if Macron gets through, he will likely win; and, if Le Pen gets through, she will likely lose. 
That combination — and those outcomes — still seems most probable, but this is increasingly less so. That said, Le Pen may still be significantly underrepresented in the polls, owing to discomfort over openly committing to voting for her. The growth of anti-system feeling — not least concerning the EU — is also key to understanding her potential polling power. That feeling should be taken into account when considering Mélenchon, too. Le Pen is focused on combatting the migration effects of the EU, and Mélenchon on what he sees as its neoliberal ideals, but their joint opposition is representative of France’s growing euroscepticism, and underlying support for a more nationalist approach. 
To many, the chance of a Mélenchon-Le Pen final represents the hollowing out of the old centre ground. And the Communist-backed Mélechon is indeed representative of the far-left in France, which has lost influence as support for the Parti Communiste Français has declined over the past decades, and organisations like the Trotskyite Lutte Ouvrière, and Olivier Besancenot’s Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste failed to gain traction. Nonetheless, Mélenchon — who had a similar poll boost before the 2012 presidential election — is overt in his leftism: a fan of Chavez, he wants France to join ALBA, has pledged to intensify borrowing and labour rights, and wants to introduce an 100 per cent income-tax top rate.
Contrastingly, an authoritarian candidate like Le Pen is usually assumed to be hard-right — but such conjecture doesn’t neatly fit our standard situational understandings of the left-right spectrum. This is not only because she has worked to distance herself from her father’s approach, but also because ‘right’ does not simply equate either to her overall brand of politics, or to her current policies. Indeed, Le Pen has increasingly focused on the left, in her support for protectionism and raised welfare spending, for instance — and in the ‘feminist’ image she has aimed to portray, not least in her ‘Je suis une femme’ campaign video
Pointing up the similarities between Le Pen and Mélenchon has become a popular, yet nervous, pastime. Those similarities relate not only to their views on the EU and certain economic overlaps, but also on what is seen as their congeniality towards Russia — another differentiating theme to have emerged during this election race, and elsewhere. Unlike some of their competitors, they have also both campaigned strongly across the whole of France, and have cleverly exploited technology. This is particularly the case with Mélenchon, who has employed holograms to extend his political reach, gained popularity from outspoken appearances in the television debates, and is currently starring in an anti-capitalist video game. 
Both are also calling for serious reform — a priority not typically shared by modern French politicians. That they would each act upon their anti-EU sentiment by reconsidering France’s place in the euro, and by holding a ‘Frexit’ referendum, means that the increased likelihood of a final round featuring them both has caused uncertainty in the markets. 
Their approaches differ somewhat regarding the change they would seek to bring to France’s political structure, however. Le Pen wants to strengthen presidential power, whereas Mélenchon wants to return to a parliamentary system. Yet both are in favour of upping the number of referenda held. And — while it is to be noted that such talk of institutional reform is by no means new in France — this focus fits with rising international questions over the extent of executive power, the meaning of representation, the place of the populus in decision-making, and an attraction towards strong rulers deriving their power from popular demands.
This presidential race could be defined as one in which the main contenders have all attempted to tap in to disillusionment with elites — whilst being themselves (to varying degrees) career politicians with traditional backgrounds. That the demands they are attempting to meet replicate those featuring in political struggles across the West is an overly simplistic evaluation. There are many differences within and between the reasons people voted for Trump and Brexit, for instance. And there will be many differences within and between the reasons Americans and Britons voted for those outcomes, and those of the French voters who ultimately side with Le Pen and Mélenchon. Yet public restlessness should not be overlooked — not least when considering the longer term. 
How will the eventual winner of France’s presidential contest cope with the coming years of European uncertainty? If Macron were to win, and Europe were to become more divided, what would that mean for Le Pen next time round? If Fillon were to win, would that decrease FN’s chances in the future, or pave the way for a leader even more focused on issues of religion and immigration? 
These are questions of significance, and it is unsurprising that the widening of the race has caused agitation. Mélenchon’s recent rise has been the subject of much interest, but — as in 2012 — might he poll less highly in reality? Has Fillon finally managed to override the view that a ‘corrupt anti-corruption’ candidate represents the worst of all worlds? Is it true that the French are actually starting to appreciate Francois Hollande, whose appearances over the past weeks have been unusually well received? Will the young Parisian urbanites who are attracted to Mélenchon for his deviation from the norm go on to vote for him, regardless of his euroscepticism? Does France really want a more serious version of Jeremy Corbyn? At what point does the possible outcome of a protest vote outweigh the objective behind its casting?
It remains most likely that Le Pen will make it through this weekend’s contest; it remains most likely that she will be beaten two weeks later. But those assumptions are growing less assured. And the nuance of how we interpret what does happen will be as important as the nuance we need now in assessing what we assume we already know.

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