Interpreting The French Election

In two weeks, French voters will once again go to the polls to elect a new President.  But before they do, their prior decisions yesterday have been called “earth shattering” by some and the end of an “era” in French politics.  Neither are quite accurate.

But first, let’s review what happened last night.  The French sent Centrist candidate and former Socialist Cabinet member Emmanuel Macron to the run-off.  But they also sent Far Right National Front candidate Marine LePen as well.  For reference, the last time a non-major party candidate made the run-off was 2002 when LePen’s father, Jean Marie LePen surprised the world and made the run-off.

Now, unlike American Presidential elections, there is no Electoral College in France.  Likewise, one cannot ascend to the Presidency in France without winning 50 percent plus one in the first election (the only way to avoid the run-off) or in the run-off.  Hence, the results of this election are far from earth shattering.

French polls of the run-off have shown the Centrist Macron crushing LePen and for good reason.  Despite LePen’s recent success and the National Front enjoying its biggest popular vote margin in a general election ever the party is still repugnant to many in France.  As a result, the odds of LePen even coming close to 50 percent on May 7th are pretty slim.

Keep in mind LePen’s dad was right where his daughter was 15 years ago.  He garnered 15 percent of the vote in May 2002.  And if one thinks recent events might sway voters to go with the hard right, nationalist, anti-immigrant candidate the odds are far from good this will occur.

In 2015, France held regional elections.  Governed by the run-off system, LePen’s National Front actually finished first in a majority of the thirteen contests.  But, in the second round when turnout increased in all thirteen contests the National Front was defeated by what is known as strategic voting.  Conservative, moderate, and liberal voters for the major conservative major party (Republicans) and liberal party (Socialists) banded together to deny National Front any power in every region.

One could argue things have changed significantly in two years and they would be right.  Trump, Brexit, and now this all seem to indicate voters are changing their political tunes.  One problem with this theory.  While we had plenty of evidence Trump could win and Brexit could win we have no evidence this French election is anything other than an anomaly.

Every single poll has shown LePen far behind Macron.  Even if you use the argument the polls were not right on Brexit or Trump they did not show a consistent 20 point gap.  Further, dig deeper into the numbers and you find a majority of center-right Republican voters and center-left Socialist and populist voters back Macron.  This gets us back to strategic voting.

In France, and many other European nations, there are often more than two major parties.  This means when voters go the polls they often consider more than just two options.  In some cases though, a party voter knows their preferred party has no chance of winning.  So, if a voter knows his party cannot win in his/her district he may choose to vote for the Republican to stop their last choice, the National Front from winning.

Voters are not just likely to behave this way on their own but likely to do so if they get permission from their party’s leader.  Every defeated candidate yesterday endorsed Macron.  Obviously, they don’t want the National Front to redefine their politics and some party’s leaders, such as the Socialists, have more in common with Macron.  But, it is notable Fillon, who led the center-right Republican party, endorsed Macron even though on immigration and terrorism he aligns more with LePen.

Depending on the country the barriers to entry for new political parties can be high or low.  For example, in the UK and Germany the barriers for new major parties to win seats in Parliament or even become relevant are high.  But, in France, not so much.

France has a political system governed by rules where a non-major party candidate can easily rise to prominence and in this case likely win the Presidency.  Keep in mind Macron is basically the leader of a brand new party (though he did poach some voters from the governing Socialist party).  The National Front has been around awhile but is not considered a major party.

So, getting back around to the original point, it is not really that surprising or shocking this result happened.  Especially when combined with the economy tanking in France and terrorist attacks continuing under a Socialist Presidency.

Let’s also think one step further beyond this election and even the run-off two weeks later.  In June, the nation will hold Parliamentary elections.  Macron, if elected, will be heading a brand new political party.  That means unlike the National Front, Socialists or Republicans he will not have a dedicated political apparatus behind him.  He has vowed to field a candidate in every race but that is a tall order.

Even if Macron can field a candidate in every race it is unlikely his party would win Parliament.  They would need to go from 0 seats to over half of 577 seats in one election.  That is highly unlikely.  Additionally, the governing Socialist majority is sure to be decimated and the parties most likely to benefit are the conservative Republicans, Macron’s candidates and an assortment of other center-left parties.

Unlike the US system where a President has broad powers even when the opposing party holds Congress (just ask Obama or Bush), the President of France has little.  Sure, the French President has authority over defense and head of state duties, but the day to day running of government and its functions are headed by the Prime Minister (almost always selected by the majority party in Parliament).  So, if Macron, or even LePen, win in May they are likely to find their agenda neutered as soon as June.

Now, none of this is to deny what happened in France yesterday is unique.  For the first time ever, two non-major party candidates made it to the run-off (though one came from a major party).  But, their margins were underwhelming and the results of the run-off seem predetermined.  Likewise, the French Parliamentary elections are likely to neuter the new President right after he or she is elected.  This makes

 

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