No one—and I mean absolutely no one—predicted this result. Nothing even close to it. The final poll (IPSOS)—which was carried out mid-week, before the final debate—had Alain Juppé, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Fillon in a three-way tie—which, in turn, absolutely no one, apart from maybe Fillon himself, could have anticipated even a week earlier—but that Fillon ended up 16 points ahead of Juppé, and with Sarkozy finishing a humiliating distant third, was as stunning as Trump winning Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—and thus the American nation—on that cataclysmic night two weeks back. Now the consequences of the first ballot of France’s “open primary of the right and center” are not quite on the same level as those of the US election—it wouldn’t make sense to speak of them in the same breath—and did not provoke nervous breakdowns outside Sarkozy’s and Juppé’s inner circles, but the result does nonetheless significantly scramble the French presidential race. The primary isn’t over, as there will be a runoff next Sunday, but the thing is pretty much in the bag for Fillon, as the majority of Sarkozy’s voters are sure to vote for him over the RINO Juppé, who has practically no reservoir of 1st round votes that could move into his column. Juppé’s only hope is a massive turnout of centrist and left voters coming to his rescue and to thwart the conservative Fillon, but this is not too likely, to put it mildly. It is estimated that some 600,000 of the 4.2 million odd primary voters, i.e. 15%, issued from the left—the near totality voting for Juppé and for the sole purpose of blocking Sarkozy (disclosure: I was one of them)—but it is simply not realistic to expect that number to measurably increase, let alone triple or quadruple, in the 2nd round. Lefties are hardly fans of Fillon but he does not provoke the visceral repulsion that Sarko does, so they are most unlikely to descend on the polls into the seven figures to stop him, and by voting for a candidate, Juppé, who is not exactly a gauchiste himself—and whom, in this respect, one remembers well—including older millennials—from late autumn 1995.
Fillon has the reservoir of votes and the momentum, voilà. My blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer nailed it in assessing Juppé’s interview sur le plateau on the France 2 evening news Monday—which I also saw—observing that he came across as “usé, vieilli, fatigué” and contrasting him with Fillon—at 62, nine years Juppé’s junior—in a racing car—his favorite pastime—in the reportage that followed. If France allowed political ads on TV, this contrasting image would have killed it for the Fillon campaign.
So how did Fillon climb 30 points in the polls in the final three weeks of the campaign? One thing needs to be laid to rest, which is that the primary result constitutes yet another big time misfire of the polling institutes. Polls are not predictions, as one knows—though sometimes people need reminding of this—and with inevitably wide margins of error in multi-candidate primaries, which concern only a small, unrepresentative slice of the electorate and with turnout uncertain. And as primaries involve single political families—here, the mainstream right—the candidates are well-known by all potential voters and with the latter highly partisan in their great majority. And as most of the candidates are acceptable to most primary voters, the latter will readily flip based on changing circumstances, notably perceptible movements in the polls. The bottom line: a sizable number of Juppé and Sarkozy supporters—as reflected in the polls throughout the campaign—were, in fact, mainly backing their candidate to oppose the other—not because they were particularly enamored of their man—so when Fillon’s climb became apparent, it generated a bandwagon effect, with large numbers switching to Fillon in the final two or three days of the campaign. Fillon is situated right at the mid-point on the LR party spectrum, incarnating the political world-view and zeitgeist of the French right-wing median voter. And no one doubts that he has the experience and stature to accede to the presidency (which was less the case with Bruno Le Maire). As soon as LR voters—impressed by Fillon’s determination, confidence, and dogged campaigning—began to see him as a winner, his dramatic surge was, in retrospect, almost a foregone conclusion.
Then there were Fillon’s two campaign books, Faire and Vaincre le totalitarisme islamique—published in September and October, respectively—and with the first one a best-seller (I have looked at neither but will now put them on my list). One notes Fillon’s changing poll numbers since the books were published: e.g. in the IPSOS baromètre politique he was at +34/-50 in September, rising 9 points in the one released Nov. 16th—and notably among LR voters—to +43/-48.
On the subject of books, there was also l’ultra droitier Patrick Buisson’s La Cause du peuple, published in late September, the subtitle of which is L’histoire interdite de la présidence Sarkozy. Buisson, who was the “right hemisphere” of Sarkozy’s political brain at the Élysée but with the two falling out, shredded his erstwhile protégé. The book, which sold like hotcakes on the right, is a règlement de comptes en règle. From the bonnes feuilles and passages quoted in the press—I have admittedly not read it myself—it was devastating for the former président de la république.
Sarkozy’s elimination may have been a surprise and his humiliating 20% score even more of one, but I am mystified that pundits, analysts, and political état-majors—notably Hollande’s at the Élysée—thought that he ever had a chance of winning. Regular AWAV readers will know that I excluded this possibility from the outset—when it became clear in 2014 that Sarko was plotting his comeback—entirely on account of his consistently awful poll numbers—among the worst in every favorable/unfavorable ranking—and inability to publicly conceal the most detestable aspects of his personality, thus keeping him mired in negative polling territory. And then there was his stratégie clivante—of polarizing society, pitting people against one another, and stoking fear of and/or animosity toward persons in one’s daily midst—which was openly assumed by sarkozyste historique and hitman Brice Hortefeux—and who, to drive the point home, claimed Donald Trump as his mentor’s explicit model. General de Gaulle was no doubt turning in his grave at such an anti-rassemblement posture of a supposed heir of Gaullism. The ineluctable consequence of Sarkozy’s political instincts: +29/-68, which was his final, pre-primary coefficient in the IPSOS baromètre. I’m sorry but one simply does not win a race—open primary or election—with that level of unpopularity. That pundits and état-majors seemingly didn’t understand this is something I just couldn’t get.
In any case, it is so nice to see Sarko gone from the political scene and inshallah for good. Alhamdullilah.
Various journalists and pundits have already been handicapping the presidential election with Fillon now the probable LR candidate, assuming that a Fillon-Le Pen 2nd round confrontation is all but certain, and with the latter’s prospects enhanced. One august US journalist-writer, who has recently authored a fine book partly on the Front National, went so far as to assert on social media yesterday that “Marine Le Pen must be licking her chops.” Now I have made a vow not to engage in any speculation whatever on the presidential election before January 30th, when we will have a fairly clear idea as to what the political field will look like: if François Hollande will be in the running for a second term, which candidate will emerge victorious from the PS’s “Belle Alliance Populaire” primary (on January 22nd & 29th), what happens with Emmanuel Macron, and if François Bayrou throws his hat in the ring. Until then, no speculation, handicapping, or hypotheses from AWAV.
Just two points. First, Marine LP has not, in fact, been licking her chops at the prospect of facing Fillon, whose victory she was absolutely not expecting. She was counting on squaring off against Sarkozy or Juppé, both prospects opening new pools of voters for her (in the event of Juppé) or provoking mass abstention on the left (if Sarkozy). The conservative Fillon complicates that, as he could well siphon off some of her bourgeois Catholic voters, though without her being able to compensate for the losses by attracting new voters from other horizons. With Fillon the LR candidate, MLP may hit a lower-than-expected ceiling in the 1st round—a ceiling rather lower than what polls have been indicating for her up to now (N.B. horse race polls taken six months in advance of the election are worth what they’re worth). If Marine LP garners, say, 7 million votes in the 1st round of the presidential election—which would be a historic high for the FN for any contest—she would, with an 80% voter turnout, barely clear 20%. It is indeed possible that this would qualify her for the 2nd round but possibly not; not if the candidate emerging victorious from the January Belle Alliance Populaire primary is sufficiently compelling (and this does not include François Hollande). If so, that candidate will likely finish in at least the low 20s on April 21st, which may well suffice to overtake MLP and qualify for the 2nd round. If MLP were to reach, say, 25% of the 1st round vote, this would mean that 9 million people voted for her. This is huge. It would represent a near 50% increase in her aggregate vote over what she received in 2012. Again, this is not beyond the realm of the possible but I just don’t see it, not in view of MLP’s ongoing terrible approval rating and which simply does not change for her: +25/-71 in the latest IPSOS baromètre. These are not the numbers of a candidate with momentum. In short: it is not a foregone conclusion that Marine Le Pen will be in the 2nd round. It is not a done deal. And on this, I am pleased to see that at least one analyst—Michel Wieviorka, writing in Le Monde yesterday—shares my view.
The second point. Continuing from the above, as Art Goldhammer pointed out in his à chaud analysis in The American Prospect, Fillon’s likely victory opens up a wide space on the political spectrum, spanning from the center-right to the moderate left. There are a lot of voters in this space, perhaps 40, even 45%, of the electorate. If Juppé were the LR candidate, he would corner the center-right and perhaps even part of the center-left vote. Fillon will no doubt attract some center-right voters but in view of his conservatism—of his neo-Thatcherism on economic issues and the state, and his conservative Catholic reflexes on questions de société—the more centrist center-right voters will likely look to another candidate. If three major candidates occupy this wide space—the PS’s, Macron, and Bayrou—then the vote will fragment, which will likely enable Le Pen to make the 2nd round. But if there are only two major candidates, i.e. if either Macron or Bayrou desists—or if Macron doesn’t qualify, or, alternatively, changes his mind and enters the January primary—then one of the two will have an excellent chance of beating out Marine LP to qualify for the 2nd round.
One thing to keep in mind. The PS may be discredited, the Front de Gauche flying apart, and the left as a whole in crisis, confused about what it stands for, and clueless what to do in power, but fully 48% of the French electorate, according to the latest annual IFOP poll on the question, continues to situate itself on the left. Breaking this down, 17% identify as center-left, 27% left, and 4% extreme left (the numbers for the right: 18% center-right, 25% right, 9% extreme right; N.B. the number for the extreme right is down 2 points from 2015 and 3 from 2014). Voters on the left are simply too numerous to be shut out of the 2nd round of a presidential election. The prospect of a 2nd round pitting the right vs. extreme right will be seen by well over half the electorate as a perversion of democracy. The outcome will lack legitimacy in the eyes of too many citizens and discredit the process, not to mention the president and government that issues from it. Sure, France saw this in 2002 but that was an accident—it should have never happened, as I explain here—and Chirac was also less right-wing than Fillon is today. There will be/is a demand for a left or left-compatible candidate to face the right in the 2nd round and, I will wager, that demand will be fulfilled.
I have more to say. I am not done. I will continue in the following post.
UPDATE: Michel Goya—a French defense intellectual, former army colonel, and author of several books—has a good analysis of the primary vote, “Le point Fillon,” on his “La Voie de l’epée” blog, and that is similar to mine on the late bandwagon effect.