This piece is based on an article first published on The Loop, ECPR’s Political Science Blog.
With the 1st round of the French presidential elections only a few days away, the incumbent Emmanuel Macron (La République en Marche) continues to lead the polls (opinion-way.com) with 26-27% of vote intentions, followed by Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) at 22-23% and with Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise) in third place at 16-18%. All the other candidates seem out of the race. Even those who were once seen as possible contenders, in particular Éric Zemmour (Rêconquete) and Valerie Pécresse (Les Républicains) trail at around 9-10%, with little chance of qualifying for the 2nd round.
Last autumn, a repeat of the 2017 Macron-Le Pen duel in the 2nd round was considered by many as the most likely scenario. The implication, supported by the polls (ipsos.com), was that the French President would again easily defeat the Rassemblement National candidate. However, the situation that has emerged after a six-month campaign is quite different: the gap between the two candidates has significantly narrowed, and a Macron victory, although still the more likely outcome, is no longer considered a foregone conclusion.
Strategic voting after the Ukraine effect
Macron’s chances of an easy victory initially appeared to be bolstered by the invasion of Ukraine. Macron has been able to cast himself as a “war President”, rallying support for Ukraine while at the same time encouraging peace diplomacy. This had a strong positive effect on his polls, while negatively affecting the poll numbers of Le Pen, Mélenchon, and Zemmour, who have all expressed positive views of Putin in the recent past. However, the war effect is now fading and is being replaced by what seems to be “strategic voting”—the inclination of electors to support their “least-worst” option rather than their preferred one if the former has a greater chance of success.
Strategic voting has likely contributed to the increase in the poll numbers of Le Pen and Mélenchon over the last 10-14 days. Le Pen has probably attracted many of Zemmour’s potential electors, whose numbers have fallen considerably. This tendency is likely to increase as Mélenchon rises in the polls: many of Zemmour’s electors (and some of Pécresse’s) would rather vote Le Pen than face a 2nd round between Macron and Mélenchon.
The growth of the extreme right
Yet, a renewed Macron-Le Pen duel is not likely to be a mere repeat of 2017, for at least three reasons. First, the growth of the extreme right. Zemmour’ supporters constitute a large potential reservoir of votes for Le Pen. Zemmour has been the great surprise of this campaign, and at some point, the possibility that he could reach the 2nd round did not appear to be outside the realm of possibility. His radical language and his background as a non-professional politician have attracted many abstentionists, while at the same time making Le Pen look less extreme.
Le Pen has focused her campaign on socio-economic themes, in particular on “purchasing power”, which has been the main preoccupation of electors throughout the campaign. At the same time, she remains a credible choice for electors concerned about immigration and security, which are the main themes of Zemmour’s campaign. Polls show that nearly 80% of current Zemmour’s electors would vote for Le Pen in the 2nd round.
Weakening of the “Rampart républicain”
In 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, unexpectedly qualified for the 2nd round of that year’s presidential election, the leaders of virtually all other parties invited their electors to support his mainstream rival, incumbent President Jacques Chirac, to stop the Front National (the predecessor of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National) from winning the Presidency. However, this logic of “blocking the extreme right at all costs” is much weaker today. While it is likely that the leaders of some smaller parties, for instance on the left, will invite their electors to support Macron, the same will not be the case for the larger parties excluded from the 2nd round.
Mainstream right Les Républicains are divided. Their candidate Valerie Pécresse has not expressed herself on this point publicly, but her main contender in the party’s primaries last December, Eric Ciotti (supported by about 40% of the party) has explicitly expressed his aversion for Macron (whom he did not vote for in 2017). Similarly, Mélenchon’s party La France Insoumise has made it clear that, while they advocate that “no vote should go to the extreme right”, they will not encourage their electors to support Macron against Le Pen, leaving them free to choose. Polls show that a slightly higher percentage of Mélenchon’s electors would vote for Le Pen than for Macron (31% vs. 28%), and most of them (41%) would abstain.
High abstention rate
The polarisation of the electorate between three ideologically distant political camps — the extreme right (Le Pen/Zemmour); the center (Macron); and the extreme left (Mélenchon)— is likely to lead to a higher-than-usual abstention rate in the 2nd round.
By only admitting the top two candidates in the 2nd round, the French electoral system “shoehorns” this three-way competition into a two-way logic. Le Pen, Macron and Mélenchon are all likely to attract votes from smaller parties within their respective political camps, but vote transfer between camps is likely to be limited. Hence, abstentions (expected to reach 30%, a high level for French presidential elections) are likely to play a disproportionate role, making the 2nd round less predictable.
A tight race
Over the past week, polls credit Macron with a score of 52-54% against Le Pen’s 46-48%. Most of the recent polls show margins of advantage for Macron that are within statistical error. One poll gives the two candidates at 51.5%-48.5%. In September the distance between the two candidates was between 15 and 20%. Second-round polls fielded before the 1st round are often not very reliable. However, it seems clear that Macron, against all expectations, will have to make a serious effort to mobilise his electors between now and April 24th to win a second term. As Macron’s ex-Prime Minister Édouard Philippe recently said, “Marine Le Pen can win this election”.
“Abstentions (expected to reach 30%, a high level for French presidential elections) are likely to play a disproportionate role, making the 2nd round less predictable.”