On Sunday April 23rd the French go to the polls for the first round of the 2017 Presidential election. Current President Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party is not standing for re-election, thanks to extremely low approval ratings. Whoever wins this election will become the eighth President in the French Third Republic, which began in 1959.
The election Sunday will not produce a winner. To become President after the first round of voting requires a candidate receive a majority of the vote – at a minimum 50% + one vote. That has never happened in the Fifth Republic, and won’t happen Sunday.
On May 7th, two weeks after the first round of voting, the top two vote getters will face off to see which will become President. Historically that meant the leader of the Gaullist right against the Socialist party candidate. That would mean Francois Fillon of the Republican (right of center) party against Socialist Benoit Hamon. Fillon, dogged by scandal accusations, still has an outside chance at making the cut (he polls about 19%), but Hamon is way back and it would be a shock if he survived the Sunday vote.
The leader in the polls is Emmanuel Macron, a young (39 years old), brilliant investment banker and former economics advisor, he espouses a pro-EU, pro-globalization free market approach he hopes will revitalize the French economy. He supports the French social welfare system and believes in accepting refugees, a hot button issue in France. Following a close second is Marine Le Pen, at 22% to Macron’s 23.5%. She is the daughter of racist right wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, and leads the National Front party he dominated for so long. Unlike her father she tries to espouse a softer, gentler nationalism that avoids overt racism. Yet she is anti-EU, anti-immigrant, and argues that France should stand up for the interests of the French people first, and reject globalization.
Right now the smart money is on these two keeping their lead and competing head to head in the run off. However, with 11 people running in the first round, and the polls bunched up, it’s impossible to know for sure. The two who appear within striking distance of the top two are Fillon and far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Nightmare scenario: If it’s Le Pen vs. Melenchon, France will be in panic mode. It would be far right against far left, two anti-EU candidates who attack France’s core post-war identity. This would be the most likely case for a Le Pen win. As controversial as the far right has been, it has become more acceptable in recent years. The far left seems a Zombie – risen from the dead but without new ideas. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – which poison to choose? If this is the match up, all bets are off. The EU may be jeopardy, France may be taking a scary and unprecedented turn, and it’ll be a helluva show.
Most likely scenario: If however it’s Le Pen vs. Macron after Sunday, breath a sigh of relief. This is the match up most expect, and currently the smart money would be overwhelmingly with Macron. Yes, Brexit and Trump over performed polls and expectations. Le Pen could as well. Still, at least this gives the French a choice between a hard turn left or right, or maintaining the post war identity that has worked well.
Odd scenario: If it’s Melenchon vs. Macron, it’s the reverse of the above, only surprisingly it would be the far left rather than nationalist right that becomes the primary alternative. This can only happen if Melenchon lures votes away from Marine Le Pen by crafting his leftist nationalism in a way that appeals to working class Le Pen voters. Macron would almost certainly win such a match up, but it would be interesting to see how the pundits and politicians react.
Right wing scenario: On the other hand, if Fillon moves ahead of Macron, it could be Le Pen vs. Fillon. In such a case Fillon is almost certain to win. He keeps many conservative votes, and voters from the left will do anything to stop Le Pen. Still…Fillon has been dogged by scandals and it’s conceivable that his appeal would be short of expected. Le Pen may have a better chance against Fillon than she would against Macron.
Other possible matchups would be: Fillon vs. Macron (interesting, though Macron would again be the favorite), and Fillon vs. Melenchon (Fillon favored, but Melenchon’s populist leftism could play surprisingly well).
Here’s the problem – in a race with 11 candidates and four of them polling just above or below 20%, there can be volatility. Any one of those scenarios is possible, even if Macron vs. Le Pen is most likely. What we’ll learn on Sunday is who the two candidates in the run off will be. That’s when the fun begins!