Nicholas Harrington

Populism’s litmus test: The French election

French

Approx Reading Time-12Three extremely different candidates, undecided voter bases and the threat of the countryside coming to town… The French election is more than a little confused, albeit entertaining, flip of the coin.

 

 

 

Let’s begin with a maxim: “The times choose a president, not the people.”

With that in mind, there are three candidates that present the possibility of victory: Macron, Le Pen, and Melenchon. Macron, because he is the handsome non-politician: a charming, affable neoliberal who promises internationalism married with economic prosperity. Le Pen, as she’s unambiguously anti-establishment: a straight-talking, no-nonsense, French “Iron-Lady”. And Melenchon, a creative freethinker campaigning on the promise of ushering in the 6th Republic and a concerted effort to redistribute wealth from the “haves” to the “have-nots”. Other candidates on the 23rd April ballot are either from the incumbent party (Hamon), or the traditional Conservatives (Fillon), thus don’t fit our suggested paradigm. Current polling confirms the above triumvirate – so far so good.

Developing the maxim further – Macron, although the media darling, may be dying on the vine. He appears to be losing stamina; suffering from a lack of specificity and an overindulgence in bromide and platitude. There are (possible #fakenews) rumours that he was tapped on the shoulder in a back room two years ago by current president Hollande – something akin to a morbid French pash (Hollande has the lowest favourability ratings of any leader during the 5th Republic). Perhaps Macron is less “outsider” than insider-wolf in outsider-sheep’s clothing.

Another worthy fact of the 2017 election cycle is that current “undecideds” are at 30%. The media takes this on face value. They drone: voters are undecided, they will make their minds up in the voting booth, they could go any which way (including loose). Maybe…? Or, maybe there are lessons to be learned from America 2016? Could it be that the survey response “I’m not sure yet” really means, “I’m embarrassed to tell you”? Yes. Yes, it could. Before Trump’s victory, the notion of a “hidden voter” (or shy-Tory syndrome, as it was formally known) was laughed off as wishful thinking. “Undecided” might translate to “Oh my God, all the candidates are hopeless…I really don’t know. I think I might stay home.”

The context suggests there will be a larger proportion of rural French voters in this election and less affluent middle-class city voters. If it’s Melenchon and Le Pen in the final found, the wise bet would be Le Pen.

France finds itself nestled in a political cleavage. Long-term economic stagnation (and even longer-term economic neglect of the rural population), 30 years of “insider politics” where no matter who was voted into power the policy prescriptions were some variety of neoliberalism, an electorate desperate for change, the prospect of low voter turnout (electoral malaise), one candidate on the ballot that is analogised to Adolf Hitler, and a large number of people that may (or may not) be “ashamed” away from public pronouncement of their voting preferences. It shouldn’t need saying, right? This sounds awfully familiar…

Sadly, the polls appear as befuddled as the talking heads on television. Indeed, some commentators have remarked that when polls are so consistent, over such a long period of time (the French poll remaining little changed for months), polling experts may be suffering from “herding{. In other words: the polls aren’t reliable. If you feel like saying “Brexit 2.0… Trump 2.0”, join the club. Therefore, in service of this enigma, let’s take a deep dive into some of the French polls and see if they don’t hide the truth in plain sight, just as the #fakepolls did during the 2016 US presidential.

The first thing to note is that French polls work the same way that US and UK polls do: they make an assumption about turnout. This was a fatal flaw in America. US polling outfits assumed X% of Democrats would turn out to vote in A, B, C states, and Y% Republicans…well as it happened, in the important states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin), it was more like X-5% Democrats and Y+5% Republicans.

Here’s what a French poll has to say:

La représentativité de l’échantillon a été assurée par la méthode des quotas (sexe, âge, profession de la personne interrogée) après stratification par région et catégorie d’agglomération.

Translation: The polls “calibrate” the interview sample based on demographic quotas as well as turnout expectations based on regions.

The last part is going to be a problem. Based on the “time” (referring back to our maxim), the context suggests there will be a larger proportion of rural French voters turning out in this election, and less affluent middle-class city voters. This is inferred from the fact that the former are most affected by the current economic climate (therefore most invested), while the latter continue to benefit marginally from the status quo. If it’s Melenchon and Le Pen in the final found (7th May), the wise bet would be Le Pen. Her supporters are impassioned (similar to the 2016 Trumpists), and the expectation that the electorate will come out and band behind Melenchon (a candidate endorsed by the French Communist Party) simply to prevent Le Pen, is a little wafer-thin. Without falling victim to “historical fallacy” (assuming that the future will directly mirror the past), this is precisely what Hillary Clinton banked on. In reality, people come out to vote for a candidate they can get behind – not simply to keep someone they are told is terrible out of office.

(Here’s another maxim: “In a voluntary voting environment people vote affirmatively, not negatively.”)

Some other points of interest from the poll deep dive:

Of those who’ll vote for Le Pen, around 83% say the choice is fixed.

Of those who’ll vote for Melenchon, around 62% say the choice is fixed.

Of those who’ll vote for Macron, around 65% say the choice is fixed.

(Le Pen voters are +20% more motived than voters ascribing to other candidates.)

Unemployment is the biggest issue in the election (56% say it’s “very important”).

National security is the 2nd most important issue (51% say it’s “very important”).

Terrorism is the 3rd most important issue (49% say its “very important”).

(Melenchon is the top pick for unemployment, but Le Pen is ahead with terrorism and national security.)

Bizarrely, a poll asks: “Does the presence of Marine Le Pen in this election mean that you might ‘change your vote’ in the 2nd round?” This question is aimed at finding out whether people will block-vote against Le Pen in the second round even if their preferred candidate doesn’t make it through.

Result: 32% Yes / 68% No.

This means that 32% would change + whatever % the candidate who made it through got = approx 55%

68% said no. This means 68% less whatever % the candidate who didn’t make it through got = approx 43%

On balance, if Le Pen makes it through, we might be looking at a 55% against / 45% for, ratio. Again it all comes down to how many people are motivated to get out to vote.

Another poll suggests 66% of the electorate plans to vote in the first round (23rd April). Given the “stakes” the media (both French and international) place on the outcome of this election, this might appear a surprising number. However, it confirms a universal apathy with institutional politics that has global resonance. Indeed, 44% of these abstainers remark “the politicians have disappointed us too much, I do not believe in them any more.”

Economic stagnation (and neglect of the rural population), insider politics, prescriptions some variety of neoliberalism, an electorate desperate for change that may be “ashamed” away from public pronouncement of their voting preferences. This sounds awfully familiar…

Once more, millennials are the least enthusiastic about the election. 58% of those under 35 say they’ll vote; 67% of those between 35 and 59; and 71% of those over 60. (This is a very “Brexitish” voting demographic. Given that both Melenchon and Marcon will need strong millennial turnout, this is not particularly encouraging for their prospects.)

A final observation on the polls: they are not asking specific questions about “leaving the EU”, or “views on immigration”. Since these are salient factors in the current climate, pundits should be interested in the answers.

Following a “deep dive” into the polling data, a critical mind with an eye to the current climate suggests that Marine Le Pen can win the 1st round on April 23rd by a surprisingly comfortable margin. If she does, both the electorate and the media will be abruptly shaken out of their stupor. They’ll become newly energised to do everything within their power (until 7th May) to prevent her ascension to the presidency.

 

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