The Latest w/the French Presidential Election Approaching By Nathan Richmond

The Latest w/the French Presidential Election Approaching By Nathan Richmond

With less than a week before the first round of the French presidential election (April 23rd) the contest is wide open. Four of the 11 contenders have a realistic chance to advance to the second round on May 7th that will decide who is to be the next French president.

That there are four within reach of the second round is itself unusual. In the last few election cycles, in which there have also been 10 or more candidates, only three each time had a realistic chance of advancing. In 2012, Hollande and the incumbent president, Sarkozy, advanced with 28.63% and 27.18% respectively. Marine Le Pen won 17.90% to place third. The other seven candidates split the remaining ~26%.

In 2007, Sarkozy and Royal advanced to the second round with 31.18% and 25.87% of the votes. Bayrou was third with 18.57% and the remainingnine candidates split the remaining ~24%.

In the 2002 election the top three candidates, the incumbent president, Chirac, (Jean-Marie) Le Pen, and Lionel Jospin won 19.88%, 16.86%, and 16.18% respectively with Chirac handily defeating Le Pen in the second round. The other 13 candidates split the remaining ~47% of the first round votes.

Current polling (as of April 17, 2017, average of all polls) for the first round voting places Macron at 23.1%, Le Pen at 22.4%, Fillon and the surging Mélenchon each at 19.3%, and Hamon fading away at 8%. The remaining six candidates are predicted to split the remaining ~8%.

One of the key unknowns about this upcoming election is how committed voters are to their stated candidate preferences. While Macron is currently in the lead, polling at 23.1%, it remains unclear as to whether his current supporters will actually vote for him.

A number of political analysts have suggested that there may be a large number of voters who will support Le Pen or Fillon, both with corruption charges overhanging, who do not want to publicly identify themselves as supporters of either. For example, a big data" study summarized in the newspaper Le Point today (April 18, 2017) predicted that Fillon would overtake Macron and advance to the second round to face Le Pen.

A second interesting unknown about the upcoming election is the percentage of French voters who will abstain. Current predictions are that voters will abstain in record numbers this time and that turnout for the first round may fall below 70% which would be a record low.  

A number of  friends and acquaintances have confided to me that if the second round presents a choice between the far right candidate Le Pen and the far left candidate Mélenchon, they will "vote white", i.e., cast a blank vote, in effect voting for neither.

Whoever wins the French presidency, the result will be a shock to French body-politic. The usual fault-line in French politics is center-left (Socialists) or center right (Gaullists). France has no experience electing a far right extremist like Le Pen or a far left extremist like Mélenchon. It also has typically rejected centrist candidates who try to bridge the left and right divide as Macron is attempting. And if Fillon wins, it will shock the French system as he was considered politically dead earlier this year after being charged with misappropriating public funds and falsifying documents in connection with the alleged fictional employment of his wife as a parliamentary aide.

While the presidency in France is the most powerful political office, the legislative elections, also in two rounds (scheduled for June 11 and 18 this year), will be extremely important. The French constitution was amended prior to the 2002 election reducing the the presidential term from 7 years to 5 to coincide with legislative elections. The goal was to prevent another cohabitation situation where the president from one party must work with a prime minister, cabinet, and legislature dominated by the opposition.  Inasmuch as it it extremely unlikely that Le Pen, Macron, or Mélenchon could assemble a legislative majority, and while Fillon might, his chances of winning the presidency are not very high at the moment, another cohabitation, or perhaps a minority government, will likely result.

With France currently in a malaise over high unemployment, slow economic growth, especially compared to Germany, constant threats and acts of terrorism, and political corruption scandals, either cohabitation or a minority government will not be a good result. Either will contribute to further cynicism and distrust of French politicians and likely increase interest in reforming the political system, perhaps even creating a new, Sixth Republic which some candidates (Mélenchon, Hamon) already embrace.

The stakes are unusually high in the upcoming French presidential and legislative elections. At stake is not only the future direction of France, but with several candidates vowing to reform the EU or leave the EU (Frexit), the fate of the Europe Union itself may be at risk. And with national elections upcoming in Britain(June) and in Germany (September), 2017 is shaping up electorally to be a fateful year.


 Nathan Richmond is Professor of Government at Utica College and currently resides in Southern France.

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