I feel badly for Alain Juppé. It was clear that he was going to lose the 2nd round and in a landslide—i.e. by a margin > than 10 points—but this was a rout. He’s an honorable man and did not merit such a drubbing. So the French right now has an uncontested champion in François Fillon, around whom the entire LR party has united and that will likely be followed by a large portion of the UDI as well. As I have written in previous posts, Fillon, politically speaking, is at the midpoint of the mainstream right side of the French political spectrum, in that large space between the centrist fringe of the Socialists and the Front National. And as I have equally written, Fillon has the personal stature and temperament to be President of the Republic, which no one even on the left would dispute (quite unlike Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande, whose temperamental and stature issues necessitate no explanation). Fillon, at this stage of the race, has to be seen as the front-runner in next spring’s presidential election: to qualify for the 2nd round, which goes without saying, and then to win it.
As to whether or not he will in fact win it, all sorts of pundits and commentators outre-Atlantique and outre-Manche have been weighing in with hypotheses and speculation. Among those handicapping the race is my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer—the outre-Atlantique French politics specialist whose analyses I look to before any other—who has a post-2nd round commentary up in The American Prospect, portentously entitled “Will Marine Le Pen become France’s next president?” A good piece, comme d’hab’, and with Art correctly concluding that “[he has] no idea what’s going to happen [a]nd neither does anyone else.” In the first paragraph, though, he says that Fillon’s victory “makes the election of the Front National’s Marine Le Pen more likely.” I’m not sure about that. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here IMHO.
Three points. First, with five months to go to the 1st round—the precise date is April 23rd—it is simply too early to be making predictions. Things are likely to change in the course of the campaign and with surprises in store. This likelihood is readily revealed by a cursory examination of the previous presidential elections of the Fifth Republic. As one will note, the only prior election where the final outcome more or less mirrored the state of the race five months before the first vote was cast was the last one, in 2012. In late November-early December 2011, Hollande was killing Sarkozy in the polls and, of course, ended up defeating the incumbent president in the end (though his 3.2% margin of victory was far narrower than what all the earlier polls had presaged). As for the other elections, here’s a quick run-down in inverse chronological order:
- 2007 — In early December 2006, Ségolène Royal—fresh off a blowout 1st round victory in the PS primary—was at parity in the polls with Nicolas Sarkozy. They were exactly equal. The outcome: Sarkozy won handily (53-47).
- 2002 — In late 2001, both Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin were at 25-30% in the polls, and with not a soul in France and Navarre doubting that the two would face off in the 2nd round. Jean-Marie Le Pen, for his part, was in the single digits. The outcome: Jospin received but 16.18% on that 21 avril de funeste mémoire and was shockingly overtaken by Le Pen (at 16.86%). As for Chirac, his 1st round score was a paltry 19.88%. The 2nd round was a foregone conclusion (and with the French people, in effect, deprived of a presidential election).
- 1995 — In late autumn 1994 PM Édouard Balladur was flying high in the polls and with Chirac going nowhere. Conventional wisdom was that Balladur all but had it in the bag. As for the Socialists—who, at the end of President Mitterrand’s interminable second septennat, were as discredited then as they are today—they didn’t even have a candidate after their great hope Jacques Delors announced, on precisely December 11th, that he wasn’t interested in running. The PS organized a quick primary for January—France’s first ever (a closed one, for card-carrying party members only)—and with two declared candidates: the PS’s gauchiste First Secretary Henri Emmanuelli and Lionel Jospin, who unexpectedly emerged from the political wilderness and to much mockery. Almost no one in the punditocracy or political class took Jospin seriously as a presidential candidate, even after his surprising 2 to 1 landslide victory in the primary. The CW was that he would be eliminated in the 1st round and with the 2nd pitting Balladur against Chirac. The outcome: Jospin finished an unexpected first in the 1st round (23%), going on to lose against Chirac, who had bested Balladur, in the 2nd but with a respectable 47.4% of the vote (thus making him the uncontested chef de file of the PS for the next seven years, that absolutely no one foresaw in late ’94).
- 1988 — In late 1987 Raymond Barre was polling in the mid 20s and ahead of PM Chirac, and with his 2nd round poll numbers against President Mitterrand showing a relatively close race (52-48 for Mitterrand). The outcome: Chirac decisively overtook Barre in the 1st round (and proceeded to be buried in the 2nd by Mitterrand, 54-46).
- 1981 — In December 1980 President Giscard d’Estaing had a solid lead in the polls over François Mitterrand and was seen by all and sundry as headed to reelection. The outcome: Mitterrand stuns Giscard in the 2nd round (52-48) on that glorious 10 mai 81.
- 1974 — At the beginning of the short five week campaign following President Pompidou’s death, the historic Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas had the edge over Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the contest on the right as to who would square off against the unity candidate of the left, François Mitterrand. The outcome: Giscard easily distanced Chaban in the 1st round (and squeaking by Mitterrand in the 2nd).
- 1969 — At the onset of the five week campaign following De Gaulle’s resignation, the centrist Alain Poher—president of the senate and acting president of the republic—was level with Georges Pompidou. The outcome: The left having been eliminated in the 1st round, Pompidou went on to pummel Poher in the 2nd (58-42).
- 1965 — The IFOP poll just three weeks before the vote had President de Gaulle winning outright on the 1st ballot, with 60%. The outcome: CDG, netting a mere 44.65% of the vote, was forced into a 2nd round against François Mitterrand (whom he defeated 55-45: a great score for just about any mortal candidate but for a man of de Gaulle’s stature, somewhat of an échec).
The moral of the story: it is best to avoid handicapping or predicting in November an election scheduled for the following April.
Second point. On Marine Le Pen, I have insisted I don’t know how many times that so long as she remains the most unpopular major political figure in France—with an favorable/unfavorable rating on the order of +25/-71 (in the latest IPSOS baromètre)—she will have no chance—I repeat, no chance whatever—of winning the 2nd round of a presidential election. And even less so against a candidate whose fave/unfave numbers are far less negative than hers. If MLP is Donald Trump (who is actually far more popular in his country than she is in hers), Fillon is not Hillary Clinton: voters of the left don’t like his positions on the issues but there is no visceral loathing and hatred of his person such as that heaped on Hillary following decades of demonization by the Republican/right-wing attack machine. The mass detestation of the left toward Sarkozy has not transferred to Fillon. The notion that voters of the left, faced with a Sophie’s Choice between Fillon and Le Pen, will hold their noses in the fetid stench and vote for the latter because her campaign rhetoric is a little more social makes no sense at all. Working class and other voters from the couches populaires—not to mention fonctionnaires (teachers et al)—who still vote for the left are not going to suddenly defect to the extreme right and vote for a candidate named Le Pen. For Marine LP to win in a 2nd round against Fillon—the candidate of the mainstream right, supported by every last courant in the LR party—well over half of her vote would necessarily have to come from the left, from those who habitually vote for the PS and Front de Gauche; from people who hate the FN and all it stands for, who consider Marine LP to be a danger to democracy and the republic.
This is crazy. C’est du grand n’importe quoi. What will, in fact, happen if it’s Fillon vs. Le Pen in the 2nd is that a few contrarian left voters will go for the latter, with more—out of Front Républicain reflex—holding their noses and voting Fillon to block MLP, and the sizable rest voting blanc or nul, or simply staying home.
Another thing. If Marine LP’s campaign rhetoric accents the social—if she tries to outflank Fillon on the left by playing up her attachment to the famous modèle social français—a potentially consequential number of FN voters in the south will defect to Fillon. Part of the FN’s vote may be populaire and living in conditions of précarité but an equal part is bourgeois, Catholic, and/or ultra-conservative—i.e. not far removed from Fillon’s core voters. FN voters in the Var, Vaucluse, and across the Mediterranean basin do not have precisely the same concerns—or the same socio-economic profile—as those in the Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and elsewhere in France’s northeastern Rust Belt. So MLP will have to think hard and fast before trying to rob Pierre to pay Paul.
As for the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon will be the unique candidate of the gauche de la gauche (the NPA and LO candidates are each worth 1% max, thus irrelevant). Mélenchon’s 1st round ceiling is 14%, as the addition of votes of all candidates to the left of the PS’s in presidential elections has, from 1988 on, never exceeded that. As for the total vote of the left, I mentioned the IFOP poll in my Nov. 23rd post, which put voters who identify with the left at 48% of the electorate, i.e. almost half, though the total stock of left votes in the 1st round—of all left candidates added up—has not reached this number since ’88 (as a small percentage of left-identifying working class voters have voted Le Pen in the 1st round). In order to win a presidential election, the 1st round stock for the left has to reach 43% (in 2012 it was 44.5%). If the left is at 40%, the PS candidate loses respectably. Unless there is a significant abstention of left voters in next April’s 1st round—or if a François Bayrou candidacy siphons center-left votes—the left stock should attain that number. That means that if there are but two major candidates occupying the space between Mélenchon and Fillon, i.e. the PS candidate and Bayrou or Emmanuel Macron—one of the two will have a good chance of overtaking Marine LP to make it to the 2nd round (as for Yannick Jadot and Sylvie Pinel—if she goes the distance—the two are worth 3% max together, thus negligible). If there are three candidates—PS, Macron, Bayrou—then MLP will almost surely make the 2nd round but, for the moment, I don’t see that happening. On n’en est pas là.
Bayrou: if he runs and Macron desists, I will support him in an instant. He will occupy a sizable space from the center-left to the center-right, and with a positioning on a range of issues that will appeal to a good fifth of the electorate, including those of my general bent (and, pour l’info, I have not been a fan of Bayrou’s in the past or felt affinity with his Christian Democratic world-view). He is also very smart and, given his longevity in the upper tier of the political class, has the stature to be president of the republic. But… I do not—not today at least—see him taking the plunge. It would be his fourth presidential run in a row, his party (MoDem) doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, he does not have a conflictual relationship with Fillon, and if Fillon co-opts the UDI, which appears likely, Bayrou’s political space will shrink comme une peau de chagrin. Malheureusement, I think M. Bayrou’s moment on the presidential scene may have passed.
As for Macron, he’s too green: too young and politically inexperienced to credibly aspire to the Élysée, and bereft of a party to boot. Having a high IQ and being bardé de diplômes does not, in itself, qualify one to be president of the French Republic Sure, he can run—provided he obtains the 500 signatures to make the ballot—but I don’t see him going past the 1st round. In the highly unlikely event he were to make it to the 2nd, François Fillon would make short work of him. It would be a replay of the Chirac-Laurent Fabius debates in the run-up to the 1986 legislative elections, which the former dominated.
That leaves the Socialists. For better or worse, the front line candidate to face Fillon will most probably come from the ranks of the party that has been in power the past five years, which is the PS. President Hollande will announce any day now—maybe this weekend, no later than Dec. 15th—whether or not he’ll run for a second term. It has been my utter certainty for well over a year, even two, that he’ll throw in the towel, that his poll numbers are simply too catastrophically low for him to have the slightest chance of rallying enough voters on the left to even make it to the 2nd round, let alone be reelected. This has just seemed so obvious to me. But numerous pundits and politicos have been convinced that, yes, he will indeed do it—and with some submitting that he will even bypass the PS’s “Belle Alliance Populaire” primary in January (which would be the shortest political suicide note in modern French history, for both Hollande and his party).
We’ll know soon enough. If Hollande does announce his candidacy—which will, at minimum, constitute definitive proof that his personality is almost as narcissistic as that of the US president-elect—he will go up against at least five candidates in the primary, with Arnaud Montebourg looking to be the strongest. In that event, Montebourg will most certainly win. Seriously, why wouldn’t he? The mere chance that President Hollande would risk such humiliation renders it almost inconceivable that he will run for a second term. But crazier things have happened in history. On verra. If Hollande bows out, then Manuel Valls will certainly leap in, setting up a confrontation between him and Montebourg. The interest engendered by this match-up will certainly insure a relatively high turnout in the primary, probably not on the same level as the right’s (4.3 million) but perhaps equaling that of the PS primary in 2011, with 2.8 million voting in the 2nd round. And the candidate who emerges victorious from that will go up against Marine LP in the 1st round, to determine who faces Fillon in the 2nd. On this, scroll up and reread what happened in 1995.
Third point. Fillon’s program is, as one knows by now, très libéral. It is a program designed to win the core LR electorate but not one that will attract many new adepts in a 2nd round campaign, or even a 1st. The promise to axe 500,000 posts in the fonction publique and significantly increase out-of-pocket costs in the health care system will not fly with a large portion of the electorate, and beyond the part that votes for the left. The question is whether or not Fillon will modify some of his campaign promises to rally 51% of 2nd round voters, particularly if he faces the PS candidate. Some commentators, e.g. the panel of A-team pundits on France 5’s ‘C dans l’air’ two days ago, think Fillon will stick to his guns, that he won’t modify a thing, that it’s the program that won him a landslide victory in the high turnout primary, that it’s his marque de fabrique, he’s going to run on it, and voilà c’est tout. But other commentators, e.g. France Inter’s très libéral economic editorialist Dominique Seux, think that Fillon’s program will witness modifications in the imperative of broadening his base. Raising the retirement age and scrapping the 35 heures will remain, as will abolishing the ISF. But there will be flexibility on Sécu reimbursements and, above all, on axing the 500K public sector jobs, which, the free-marketeer Seux asserts, is “impossible.” Personally speaking, I think Fillon is sufficiently pragmatic that he will take the latter course, that he will inch a bit toward the center. On verra bien.
In conclusion, here’s a tribune posted Monday, “Meet the conservative leader who might become France’s next president,” by Arthur Prévôt, who was a student of mine—Master 2 at the ICP—two years ago. Arthur is a militant in the LR party, politically very conservative, has lived in America, is favorable to Russia, was a part of Sarkozy’s foreign policy team during the primary campaign, and for whom he wrote speeches. We profoundly disagree on just about everything political but he’s bright and was a pleasure to have as a student. He’ll have a brilliant political career if that’s what he decides to do.
ADDENDUM: I just came across a piece, dated Nov. 30th, in Politico.eu, “Why Marine Le Pen won’t win,” by Jacques Lafitte and Denis MacShane. The particulars of their analysis differ from mine but they arrive at the same conclusion.
UPDATE: I watched President Hollande’s address last night (Dec. 1st). I was nervous while he was talking and when it was over, went “wow!” It was a historic moment. Showing my age, I was reminded of LBJ’s address to the American nation on March 31st 1968, which occurred in circumstances similar to the predicament faced by Hollande today. Not only would Hollande have been a certain loser in the election, being eliminated in the 1st round, but most certainly a loser in the PS primary as well. After Sarkozy’s humiliation on Nov. 20th—plus Juppé’s last Sunday—Hollande’s defeat at the hands of Montebourg, Valls, or whoever would have been a foregone conclusion. Listening to the commentaries and reactions after the address, I am astonished at the surprise of pundits and politicos who expected Hollande to run for a second term and despite his execrable poll numbers (e.g. see the latest polling data linked to in this WaPo op-ed, dated Nov. 30th, by Christine Ockrent). What political planet do these people live on? As of today, it looks like the Belle Alliance Populaire primary will be a battle between Valls and Montebourg (though a third man or woman could, of course, emerge). There will be more adepts on the left for Montebourg’s dirigiste-like economic proposals than Valls’s relative libéralisme—and whose identification with the El Khomri law will be a handicap—but the latter’s tough guy pose and intransigent republicanism will likely swing the vote his way. Valls, like Ségolène Royal in the 2006 PS primary, will find his base with Français moyen PS voters in the provinces. That’s the way I see it today, at least.
Repeating what I have said above and over the past two weeks, if both Macron and Bayrou run it is difficult to see how the PS candidate—with Mélenchon gnawing at his heels—will be able to overtake Marine LP to qualify for the 2nd round. But if Bayrou does not take the plunge or Macron fails to land 500 parrainages, then Valls, with a vote in the low 20s, will have a good chance of beating MLP to make it to the 2nd (where he will then lose to Fillon). As usual, the maître-mot is: on verra.