Low Turnout is LePen's Narrow Path to Victory in Round Two by Nathan Richmond
The first round of France's 2017 presidential election ended with Macron and Le Pen advancing to the second round as the polls predicted. What was not predicted correctly was that Macron would finish ahead of Le Pen by several percentage points.
A number of different storylines emerged from the first round. For nearly fifty years the center-right Gaullists or center-left Socialists have governed under the 5th Republic. Both of those parties' standard-bearers were rejected. Macron represents an attempt to bridge the left-right divide in modern French politics. While this has been attempted previously (Bayrou), it has never been successful.
And Marine Le Pen represents the extreme right of the French political spectrum, a movement that also has never been electorally successful. One of these two, Le Pen or Macron, will emerge in a little more than a week as the president-elect of France and thus break a nearly fifty-year tradition.
While politicians and political analysts view Le Pen's and Macron's first round success as a rejection of the status quo parties, this does not fully explain the success of Macron and Le Pen. While there is some truth to that explanation, particularly with regard to the rejection of Hamon's candidacy, the result was more of a personal rejection of the particular candidate(s), especially with regard to Fillon. Had Juppé, for example, been the candidate of Les Republicains, that party may have had more success than with Fillon, who is currently under indictment for misappropriating government funds and falsifying documents. The test of whether it was a rejection of the mainstream parties or merely their standard bearers will be in June when the national legislative election occurs.
Another storyline is the surprising success of the far left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon was a candidate in the 2012 French presidential election. Then he won 11 percent and came in a distant fourth behind the first round victors of Hollande and Sarkozy. In 2017, he also came in fourth, but just barely missed out qualifying for the second round. In this instance, his success is attributable to his magnetic personality, especially during the candidate debates, rather than his far left political program. The test of this thesis will also be the result of the June legislative election.
Why Le Pen and Macron? The first round election demonstrated some of the main geographic and demographic fault lines in France today. Le Pen's support came mostly from the northeast (France's "rustbelt") and the Mediterranean coast. Macron's support ran mostly from the northwest to the southwest and the Paris region. Le Pen's supporters were primarily young, working class, and less educated voters. Macron found support among the older, better educated, middle class, and those "doing well" in France today. The top issues for Le Pen's voters were immigration and terrorism. For Macron's supporters, they were unemployment and purchasing power.
Immediately following the first round, polls indicated that Macron would easily defeat Le Pen in the second round by picking up most all of Hamon's voters, and nearly half of Fillon's and Mélenchon's. Macron was polling at about 62 percent to Le Pen's projected 38 percent. More recent polls have shown the contest tightening, slightly, with Macron at 59 percent and Le Pen with 41 percent.
All of the mainstream parties have joined together in an effort to form a "Republican Front" supporting Macron against Le Pen’s National Front. Only the far left candidate, Mélenchon has not. Instead, he urged his voters to reject Le Pen but stopped short of endorsing Macron.
While Le Pen remains far behind Macron in the polls, she does have a possible path to victory. The key variable will be voter turnout. Low turnout helps Le Pen. If only 65 percent or less of those who today say they will vote for Macron turn out to vote, and if Le Pen can poll closer to 45 percent or more than her current 41 percent, Le Pen could win. A high abstention rate may actually happen because many voters don't like either Macron or Le Pen and election day occurs during a holiday weekend (May 7) in France and many people leave town taking a long weekend.
Nathan Richmond is Professor of Government at Utica College and currently resides in Southern France.