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A Path for Le Pen?

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The first round of the French Presidential elections was held on the 24th of April and Europe breathed a sigh of relief as Marine Le Pen, the anti-EU leader of the National Front, came in second place to political newcomer Emmanuel Macron. The two outsiders were neck-and-neck in last weeks of the campaign, leading to fear that a strong first round showing might lend wings to the right-wing nationalist party for the second round run-off. France’s two-round system was designed by Fifth Republic founder Charles de Gaulle for precisely this situation[1]: to prevent an extremist fringe party from taking control of the government with a thin plurality of votes. “In the first round, the French vote to fulfill their hopes, in the second, to avoid their fears” is as accurate a description of the great general’s intent as any. And to emphasize this point, all the eliminated candidates endorsed Macron within a day or two of the results being published.

Marine Le Pen promises radical change and a “restoration of French sovereignty” in immigration, frontiers, industrial and monetary policy and foreign affairs. Emmanuel Macron offers reform and liberalization from within the current system; an unleashing of French entrepreneurial talents without a reduction in the social safety net. Now pro-European leaders hope that the French will fear the devil they know, Le Pen’s known antipathy to the EU, more than the one they don’t: Macron’s political inexperience, elite education and privileged banking background. That remains uncertain.

Current polling gives Macron a decisively large advantage over his opponent. Nate Silver correctly points out that this is in no way equivalent to the situation facing the Brexit referendum or the US Presidential Election: in both those cases the winning sides were within the statistical margin of error of the polls and the trends had fluctuated wildly during a long campaign. In the case of the French, there are only two weeks between the first and second round, and Le Pen trails by 26 points, which is statistically equivalent to the gulf between the Earth and the Moon. That is simply too big a gap to overcome simply from small sampling bias or polling error. Does that mean that Mrs. Le Pen has no possibility of victory?

Not necessarily.

One of the most infamous phrases in economics is “ceteris paribus” a Latin term meaning “other things equal.” It is useful enough in modeling when you want to do scenario analysis: you change one variable at a time to measure the impact and assume that all the other variables remain static – “ceteris paribus”. Unfortunately, this is innately wrong: in life, nothing EVER stays the same. The rule of existence is not ceteris paribus, it is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle[2], so expecting a simple repetition of the first round but with only two candidates is not useful. Of course, neither Silver nor the pollsters make this assertion, but many lay people will do so, and may lead to false expectations which can themselves have a significant impact on the second round. These expectations could lead to higher rates of voter abstention and null ballots from losing candidates supporters – and the higher the “margin of safety” enjoyed by Macron, the greater the impact these assumptions could have, disproportionately affecting Macron votes.

What would have to happen for Marine Le Pen to have a shot at winning? I built an electoral model to find out[3] using the department-level electoral data from the French Interior Ministry.  I make no estimation of probabilities – I do not assert that these things can or will happen; but these things must happen for the National Front candidate to have a path to victory. If they remain outside the realm of possibility, so much the better[4].

In the first round, Emmanuel Macron took 1 million more votes than Marine Le Pen, 8.6 to 7.6 million, out of 36 million valid votes cast. This is already a substantial achievement, given that Mme Le Pen was expected to win the first round by a narrow margin. But the voting data does reveal some disturbing trends.

  • The traditional parties utterly collapsed. The Socialist Party utterly collapsed under the millstone that is François Hollande, coming in fifth place after losing 8 million out of 10 million votes[5]. This is its worst showing in over a century, at least since Léon Gambetta led the far left in the 1871 campaign of the newly established Third Republic. The Republican party did better with a third place finish, but the scandal-ridden François Fillon drew 2.5 million votes than former President Sarkozy in the 2012 election he lost;
  • The parties that did best were a completely new – “unblemished” if you will – centrist party called En Marche and established by Emmanuel Macron as a personal electoral vehicle for his campaign; and two radical parties on either side of the political spectrum, Le Pen’s right-wing Front National and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing Front Gauche.
  • The abstention rate was 22%, which is higher than the past two presidential elections: 20% in 2012 and 16% in 2007. The number of blank and null ballots was also higher than in previous elections: 944,000 vs. 700,000 in 2012 and 534,000 in 2007. This reflects growing voter disenchantment with the traditional parties and also with the current crop of candidates.

These two factors could prove to be critical. They presage the potential fragility of de Gaulle’s system, which was designed to exclude fringe parties from winning the Presidency. But when the traditional moderate centrist parties collapse and the “fringe parties” win 41% of the vote between them, we have reason to doubt the example of past elections. When a million French voters prefer a blank ballot to any of the 11 candidates and another 10.5 million don’t even bother to go to the polls in one of the most critical elections in living memory, the continued resilience of the “voting against fear” mechanism comes into question.

The fact that the system is under great and increasing stress does not mean that Le Pen will win either. It only means that there are more reasons to doubt the outcome of the 7 May second round. In that contest, Marine Le Pen will still have to make up for a vast gulf in voters between herself and Mr. Macron. The election model will tell us how these numbers would have to play out for Mme Le Pen to have any chance at victory, but first we will make some assumptions that will establish an electoral baseline for comparison.

The first key assumption is that there will be no defections. All of Marine Le Pen’s supporters will continue to vote for her and all of Emmanuel Macron’s supporters will continue to vote for him. If we then assume that 100% of the voters of the other candidates follow their leaders’ endorsement of Macron and vote for him, we have the following baseline result:

This enormous advantage enjoyed by Macron is the reason that so many people presume he will win easily. But what if the radicalization of French politics, the disenchantment with the status quo and dislike or distrust of the two remaining candidates leads to a surge in abstentions? What if Mélenchon and Fillon voters prefer to stay home rather than cast their ballot for a candidate they might respectively consider to be an elite globalist banker or an upstart neophyte semi-socialist? An increase in abstentions would favor Le Pen, since we assume her voters will always vote for her and never abstain, thus any defections will only come from Macron’s potential support. Assume the abstention rate doubles in the second round:

Abstention rates this high are abnormal for French presidential elections, but they are average for legislative elections. And we no longer live in “normal” times. What if even some of Macron’s original, first round supporters stay home? After all, the French people are as busy as everyone else and with the help of some nice May weather, they may decide that Monsieur Macron has a sufficient margin of victory that he doesn’t need their individual vote. Complacency might lead to higher abstention in En Marche, so assume that Macron’s abstention rate increases by +8%:

Of course, it is also too extreme to think that Mr. Macron will take 100% of all other candidates’ supporters, no matter what their endorsement is. There are many voters who hold positions closer to those of Mme Le Pen than those of the center-left Macron. There are many voters who will not identify with and perhaps view with suspicion a candidate who studied philosophy at the elite Paris Nanterre University, studied public administration at the even more elite École nationale d’administration and then went to work as an investment banker for Rothschild & Cie Banque. Mr. Macron is a charismatic and popular person, but he is not by any stretch of the imagination a “man of the people”.

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan is not a radical politician, he is a center right Gaullist with a strong sense of France’s national sovereignty (like Marine Le Pen). His France Arise came in sixth place, behind the Socialists, and is the largest of the “other” parties with 1.6 million voters. And his voters have political concerns which are considerably closer to those of Marine Le Pen’s Front National than to the left-wing parties, particularly around their concern for immigration, terrorism and taxation. If Mme Le Pen can secure a substantial portion of the most conservative voters in these affiliations, she could substantially close the distance with Mr. Macron. She is obviously thinking along these lines: the National Front leader announced that Mr. Dupont-Aignan would be her Prime Minister if she won the second round.

Assume Marine Le Pen takes all of Dupont-Aignan’s supporters:

Winning some of the small party supporters will never close the gap for Le Pen. To beat Macron, she must make major inroads into the other two big parties: the center right Republicans of François Fillon and the “hard left” supporter of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front Gauche. This may not be a ludicrous as it sounds. Like Mr. Dupont-Aignan, Mr. Fillon’s supporters are conservative, worried about immigration and terrorism and disturbed at the globalization-driven changes in the traditional image and lifestyle of France. They still back the European Union and the Euro, but they are not necessarily happy with the direction the Union has taken since 2008. Mr. Mélenchon’s supporters are of a completely different ideology than those of Mme Le Pen; but the hard-core proletariat[6] of the Left Front has been extremely hard hit by the stagnation and unemployment driven by the dual motors of globalization and neoliberal capitalism. They are angry and frustrated that the European Union has adopted “extreme” austerity measures while bailing out big banks (and big bankers). Le Pen’s message of economic sovereignty, anti-globalization and revitalization of French heavy industry – whether credible or not – must resonate with this demographic. Whether it is enough to overcome their distaste for the “Vichyist” Le Pen is another issue.

Let’s assume that Le Pen manages to secure 40% of Fillon’s and Mélenchon’s supporters:

Close, but still not close enough. Le Pen must do more than make inroads in Republican and Front Gauche voters to win, she must dominate in some areas. Fortunately for the far right candidate, France is not a uniform distribution of voters: geography matters. A look at the first round results makes apparent the “clumpiness” of voter distribution by region and department.

Source: AFP

Emmanuel Macron won in the region around Paris, the Atlantic provinces and the central regions, while Marine Le Pen dominated the “rust-belt” North East and East as well as the Mediterranean coast with its history of “Pied Noir” immigration and Muslim-heavy banlieues. Mr. Fillon won in the Vendée, a region so proverbially Catholic that it hosted a very bloody Royalist and pro-Catholic Church insurrection against the French revolutionaries of Paris throughout the 1790’s. Mélenchon won fewer departments, but came in close second in a number of regions where Marine Le Pen won: Occitanie, Grand Est, Hauts de France, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

What if Marine Le Pen wins a higher percentage of Fillon and Mélenchon voters in the districts where she already won? After all, voters in these regions will be facing similar economic and social conditions to their National Front neighbors and might be more likely to share some of their concerns than those who live in wealthy and luxurious Île de France. Assume she wins 50% of Fillon and Mélenchon supporters in those departments won by Fillon and Mélenchon; and further assume that she wins 70% of their supporters in departments won by the Front National. It would just be enough to take her over the top:

Those are many, many “ifs”: Mme Le Pen needs to roll five or six straight “sevens” at the craps table to win this election. Yet it is not impossible: she has a path to power, no matter how difficult it may seem. This path lies through:

  1. Voter apathy and distaste with the remaining candidates leading to high abstention rates;
  2. Overconfidence and complacency leads some Macron supporters to remain home;
  3. Marine Le Pen poaches a substantial number of conservative voters from Dupont-Aignan and Fillon through her stance on immigration, terrorism, French identity and national sovereignty;
  4. She also makes inroads in the extreme left through a combination of anti-globalist, nationalist industrial policy together with a disparagement of her opponent’s far more elitist background.

The French election is not a done deal, not by a long shot. If I might paraphrase Han Solo: “I’ve still got a bad feeling about this.”


Sources and Notes

[1] de Gaulle wanted a strong Presidency to avoid the cycle of instability and inaction that had led to the ungovernability of the Third Republic in the run up to the Second World War, but he also recognized the dangers of an overly strong executive. To be fair, he was probably thinking more about the threat from the Left than from the Right, though he also had to fear a great deal of conservative unrest due to his handling of the Algerian Revolution.

[2] Walter Heisenberg, a German physicist, famously postulated that certainly complementary variables – such as the position and velocity of a particle – are inherently limited in the precision with which they can be measured, because the measurement itself will change them (Observer Effect).

[3] Yes, I am perfectly aware of the irony of having derided economic modeling using stepwise scenario analysis in one paragraph and then building precisely this type of model for the rest of the article. J

[4] I do not endorse Mme Le Pen’s candidacy.

[5] François Hollande received 10,272,705 ballots in his 2012 defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy. His successor, Benoît Hamon, received only 2,291,565 ballots. Merçi bien, Monsieur Hollande.

[6] This is not an exaggeration or misnomer: the Front Gauche evolved out of the French Communist Party. Proletarian is a badge they wear with pride.

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