French Elections 2017: Who Will Win?

Abstention could affect the outcome.

A woman walks past posters of presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in Paris, France on April 28, 2017.
A woman walks past posters of presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in Paris, France on April 28, 2017. (Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters)

When Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right National Front (FN) candidate, came in second place in the first round of France’s presidential election in 2002, earning a coveted spot to the runoff against then President Jacques Chirac, he was met with outright rejection. His shocking advance, the first time a member of the far right had advanced that far in a French election since World War II, prompted French voters on the left and right to rally in Chirac’s favor, handing him an unprecedented 82 percent of votes in the runoff, and sending a defiant “non” to Le Pen and the vision for France his party represented.

Fifteen years later, and for the second time in FN history, a Le Pen has once again made it to the presidential runoff. But it’s no longer Jean-Marie on the ballot, nor has there been the same kind of uproar the party faced the last time it made it this close to the Élysée Palace. Like her father, Marine Le Pen isn’t expected to become president—polls project she’ll lose by a wide margin to Emmanuel Macron, her independent challenger. But unlike her father, and unlike 2002, Le Pen’s standing in the May 7 runoff was widely anticipated.

Dr. David Lees, a researcher on French politics at Warwick University, tells me the FN’s expected advance signals a shift from the France of 2002—one that is best illustrated through the covers of French left-wing daily Libération from both periods.

The cover of French newspaper Libération in April 2002 (L) and April 2017. (Libération)

“If you look at this year’s Libération, it’s simply a picture of Macron celebrating his victory over Le Pen, rather than decrying the presence of Le Pen, and that’s really important,” Lees said. “It shows you where we are in France now—it’s just not a shock that she’s there.”

Le Pen has been a force throughout the presidential contest. Since December polls showed her consistently in either first or second place in the first round of the presidential election. When she formally launched her campaign in February, Le Pen cast her candidacy as part of the larger populist wave sweeping the Western world and advocated a France with closed borders, its own currency, and a government that put the country, and its people, first. It’s a vision of France the FN has promoted since its founding in 1972—and which has now gained momentum.

“Part of the reason 2002 was so phenomenal was partly because we had an extreme right candidate in that situation for the first time,” Lees said, “but part of it was socially, because it came on the back of World Cup victory for France in 1998.”

The country’s 3-0 upset against Brazil was a big deal. Not only did France earn its first World Cup title, it did so using its star power in Zinedine Zidane, the Marseille-born footballer of Algerian descent; Lilian Thuram, a defender from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe; and Marcel Desailly, a defender from Ghana. Their victory was regarded by many as a milestone for multicultural harmony. The New York Times called the win “a rebuke, in an athletic sense anyway, of the anti-immigration stand by Jean-Marie Le Pen and the right-wing National Front party that has gained popularity in recent years.” The Economist said the victory was “a blow for Jean-Marie Le Pen and his racist National Front,” but added that not all French media was as jubilant, noting the Libération editor who said that while the victory cannot change the France’s social reality, “it can change the image the French have of themselves.”

It was this image that French voters seemingly sought to protect when they turned out en masse to support Chirac in 2002. But absent a swell of national pride, which has since been superseded by concerns over unemployment, immigration, and mounting terrorist attacks, Lees said the French may have less of an impetus to deflect a Le Pen victory.

“People across the political spectrum seem to have already decided it’s a forgone conclusion that Macron is going to win,” Lees said. “So there’s a political and social element here as well, and I think the social context is very different because we have a situation now where terrorism is frequent and the ideas around immigration that Le Pen is proposing are quite mainstream.”

Recent opinion polls (which demonstrated their track record of accuracy in the first round) project Macron to earn approximately 64 percent of the vote in the runoff. This, coupled with the endorsements of both Republican candidate François Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, have prompted many to celebrate Macron’s victory as all but certain.

Though Macron’s victory is likely, Lees said the overall outcome could be closer than anticipated, fueled in part by the endorsement of Macron by François Hollande, the unpopular Socialist president, and the lack of endorsement by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who came in fourth place in the first round. Unlike Fillon and Hamon, who endorsed Macron within minutes of the exit polls’s release, Mélenchon refused to endorse any candidate on the onset, waiting exactly one week after the first round before cautioning his supporters against making the “terrible mistake” of voting for the FN. He refused to say whether or not he would vote for Macron.

“[Mélenchon’s decision] leaves the door wide open for people who are Euro-skeptic on the extreme left to back Le Pen or to abstain,” Lees said.

Indeed, Mélenchon’s supporters deviating to the far-right or abstaining altogether may be what Le Pen is hoping for. In a surprise announcement last week that she would step down as leader of the FN to focus on the runoff, Le Pen said, “I am no longer the president of the National Front. I am the candidate for the French presidency.”

Though it’s unclear if the move will be permanent, Lees said it signals Le Pen’s effort to distance herself from the FN’s fringe reputation and attract more left-wing voters.

“The party of course is still perceived despite Marine Le Pen's best efforts as being a little bit toxic, and I think what she's trying to do here is if there are extreme left Socialists who are very Euro-skeptic who don't want to back Macron because they see him as a kind of embodiment of the neoliberal elite,” Lees said. “This is an opportunity, a door, to vote Le Pen without necessarily voting for the Front National.”

Although Le Pen may have attempted to distance herself from the FN, she has not moved away from its policies. On Saturday, she announced that, if elected, she would nominate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a right-wing politician and her former first-round rival, to be prime minister. Like Le Pen, Dupont-Aignan ran a Euro-skeptic platform and advocated hardline approaches to security and economic protectionism. While his addition to the campaign isn’t expected to bolster her base of support significantly—he carried 4.7 percent of the vote in the first round—the move could signal Le Pen’s willingness to soften certain FN policies such as its position on the euro. Dupont-Aignan said their alliance would come with “modifications” to her platform, noting, for example, that reincorporating the franc as the national currency would no longer be “a prerequisite for any economic policy.”

But Le Pen has also signaled her desire to court center-right voters. The FN candidate was criticized Monday after video surfaced of her lifting word-for-word sections of speeches from her formal rival, Fillon.

The FN was undeterred. Florian Philippot, the FN vice president, “completely owned up” to the fact Le Pen’s speech resembled Fillon’s in an interview Tuesday with Radio Classique, calling the move a “nod-and-a-wink” to Fillon’s speech meant to “launch a real debate” about French identity. David Rachline, Le Pen’s campaign manager, offered a similar explanation to French broadcaster France 2 Tuesday, adding the move “was appreciated, including by all of Fillon’s supporters”—though the Republican candidate has endorsed Macron.

Apart from each candidate’s overall appeal, voters will too have to consider their ability to govern once they make it to the Élysée—a challenge markedly more difficult for Macron and Le Pen, one of whom, Macron, has no legislative presence, and the other, Le Pen, whose presence is marginal. As I previously reported, neither the FN nor Macron’s En Marche party are likely to gain enough seats in the June election for the National Assembly, France’s lower but more powerful house of parliament. This makes cohabitation, in which the president must share power with the prime minister of a different party, almost certain. Though the power-sharing arrangement has never historically been a favorable one, it may not be totally insurmountable for Macron, whose centrist platform Lees said could appeal to legislators across the political spectrum.

“Macron is not a well-known right-wing president governing with a left-wing government, or vice versa,” Lees said. “If he ends up governing with the center-right, he’ll probably become more center-right, and likewise he’s already been with the Socialists in some form so he can probably get on with them very well. It’ll be a very different form of cohabitation, but it’s going to be absolutely vital.”

Macron has already begun to voice his willingness to address the concerns of Euro-skeptics, telling the BBC that while he is “pro-European,” he would fight for the European Union’s reform.

“I defended constantly during this election the European idea and European policies … but at the same time we have to face the situation, to listen to our people, and to listen to the fact that they are extremely angry today, impatient and the dysfunction of the EU is no more sustainable,” Macron said, adding: “So I do consider that my mandate, the day after, will be at the same time to reform in depth the European Union and our European project.”

Le Pen may not be as lucky. With the FN claiming only two of the National Assembly’s 577 seats, she is unlikely to claim a legislative majority no matter how well the FN performs in June. What’s more, she may struggle to find legislators on the left or the right to back her far-right platform.

“It would be virtually impossible for Le Pen to govern on an everyday basis,” Lees said. “She would find it very hard to get anything through the National Assembly, even though it'd be a right-wing National Assembly … it would be very, very difficult.”

With the second-round of voting this Sunday, Macron and Le Pen will now have the task of persuading voters who supported their former opponents. Though recent polls project many of these voters will turn out to vote for Macron (French pollster Ipsos projects that 62 percent of Mélenchon’s voters, 48 percent of Fillon’s, and 79 percent of Hamon’s will support him), abstention could play a role. France saw a 22.2 percent abstention rate in the first round, slightly higher than the rate in the presidential elections of 2007 and 2012.

Regardless of how many people turn out to vote in the second round, Lees warned France is unlikely to see the 82 percent turnout that averted a Le Pen victory in 2002.

“There’s an apathy, there’s a complacency, and there’s a sense that ‘Well [Jean-Marie Le Pen] didn’t do it in 2002, so why can [Marine Le Pen] do it in 2017?’” Lees said. “That’s a slightly worrying attitude.”