The Ultimate Guide to the 2017 French Elections – Part II
The first round of the French Presidential elections is due to be held in 25 days (on 23rd April), with the likely second round two weeks later on 7th May. In many ways this is proving to be a unique election campaign but the centre-left Emmanuel Macron still comfortably leads National Front candidate Marine Le Pen in second round polls.
This in-depth four-part Election Series examines all core elements of the upcoming presidential and legislative elections and takes a quantitative and qualitative approach. In Part II, I tackle seven questions, looking at past presidential elections where appropriate:
Q1: Who are the presidential candidates?
Eleven candidates, spanning the breadth of the political spectrum, will officially contest the first round in a bid to capture the 46 million or so votes up for grabs. However, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen remain comfortably ahead in the polls on around 25%.
Q2: What are their relative strengths and weaknesses?
The recent televised debate between the top five candidates was high calibre, in my view, and the front-runners have in recent months shown clear strengths…but also weaknesses.
Q3: What are the odds of a candidate winning an absolute majority in the first round?
No candidate has ever obtained more than 50% of the popular vote in the first round. This time looks no different and a second round is a near certainty based on latest polls.
Q4: Does the number of sponsors have a bearing on first round results?
The relationship is tenuous but does suggest that Le Pen will fail to win the presidency.
Q5: Does the number of candidates have a bearing on first round results?
The large number of candidates points to the winner and runner-up of the first round winning only just over half of the votes, broadly in line with recent opinion polls.
Q6: Does the first round result have a bearing on the outcome of the second round?
Precedent suggests that a small margin of victory in the first round makes the second round outcome harder to predict. This year’s election could prove a break with the past.
Q7: Does it matter who came third or fourth in the first round?
It has on a few occasions but assuming that Fillon comes third and the left-wing candidates fourth and fifth, polls point to a convincing Macron win versus le Pen in the second round.
22 Questions & Answers
PART I (The Ultimate Guide to the 2017 French Elections, Part I, 17 March 2017)
- Why are French presidential elections important?
- How are French presidential elections run?
- What about voter turnout?
- What are the key themes for this presidential election?
- Why are French legislative elections important?
- Who are the presidential candidates?
- What are their relative strengths and weaknesses?
- What are the odds of a candidate winning an absolute majority in the first round?
- Does the number of sponsors have a bearing on first round results?
- Does the number of candidates have a bearing on first round results?
- Does the first round result have a bearing on the outcome of the second round?
- Does it matter who came third or fourth in the first round?
- At this stage can we predict with any accuracy the eventual winner?
- Are French presidential opinion polls useful in predicting the eventual winner?
- What are French opinion polls currently predicting?
- Do regional elections tell us anything about candidates’ chances?
- Which two candidates are most likely to make it to the second round?
- What are the odds of a left-wing candidate becoming President?
- Who will be president?
- What are the possible implications for the future of the eurozone and EU?
- How will financial markets react?
- Who will be Prime Minister and why is this important?
1. WHO ARE THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES?
The Conseil Constitutionnel (French Constitutional Council) officially confirmed on 18th March that eleven presidential candidates (from 11 different political parties or movements) had met the requirements to contest the first round on 23rd April, namely that they were sponsored by at least 500 elected officials from at least 30 of the 101 French Departments (see Figure 1). A total of 61 candidates had put forward their candidacies for the 2017 presidency and they secured, in aggregate, a total of 14,586 sponsors which was broadly in line with the 2012 elections (about 15,000 sponsors).
In the previous nine presidential elections ten candidates on average contested the first round (see “Does the number of candidates have a bearing on first round results?” below).
The eleven candidates’ party, current role, background and previous presidential election bids are summarised in Figure 2.
2. WHAT ARE THEIR RELATIVE STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES
I gauge the top five candidates’ perceived strengths and weaknesses in an attempt to predict who will ultimately sway public opinion come the 23rd April and 7th May.
The 3-hour long televised debate on 20th March between Le Pen, Macron, Fillon, Hamon and Mélenchon was high calibre, in my view, and the front-runners have in recent months shown clear strengths…but also weaknesses. Admittedly, a candidate’s (and his/her party’s) strengths and weakness are somewhat subjective and his/her attributes can be both a strength and a weakness while a perceived strength can quickly become a weakness and/vice versa.
Marine LE PEN
Le Pen is an experienced politician who has been in politics for over 30 years and who came third in the 2012 presidential elections (with 18% support). She has toned down the right-wing rhetoric of her father and National Front founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and made the party more acceptable to a mainstream audience. The National Front performed well in the 2015 regional elections and is well represented at the local level, particularly in Northern France’s old industrial heartland and in the South of France. Her tough stance on immigration and national security has resonated given multiple terrorist attacks on French soil in the past two years and she has arguably benefited from popular, Europe-wide support for nationalist and populist policies. Her promise of holding a referendum on French EU membership has arguably divided voters.
Le Pen’s policies are still divisive and recent presidential elections in Austria and national elections in the Netherlands suggest that while nationalist and/or populist parties in Europe are in the ascendancy, there has been a tendency to over-estimate their reach (see Going Dutch and Fed’s next big data hurdle, 17 March 2017). The French business community is tacitly critical of her goal of taking France out of the EU and eurozone. Le Pen’s economic agenda is arguably more limited than some of her rivals and she has lost her mantle of “non-mainstream” politician to Macron. She lacks her father’s charisma and oratory skills. Her close links with President Putin and her promise, if elected, to cancel EU sanctions on Russia may be hurting her appeal as is her comparison to US President Trump. She is currently under investigation for misappropriation of EU funds and publication of violent images.
As a young (39 year-old), independent, centre-left candidate Macron has promoted the idea that he is a welcome break from traditional politics and politicians, particularly from the Socialist and Republican parties which have largely dominated French politics for the past 30 years. He is vying to become the first centrist president since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974, the first independent candidate to become France’s head of state and the youngest ever President under the Fifth Republic (see Figure 3 and Question 1B in The Ultimate Guide to the 2017 French Elections – Part I, 7 March 2017). He has found support amongst those who are unwilling to vote for the more polarised candidates on the left and right. He arguably held his own against far more experienced candidates in the recent televised debate.
Macron has a lack of political experience with his two-year stint as Economy Minister in 2014-2016 under Socialist President Hollande his only major political posting. At the same time, his former membership of the unpopular Socialist Party is viewed as a liability. He does not enjoy the backing of a major party-machine and has struggled to gain nation-wide support. His political program has been described as somewhat lacking in substance. Moreover, his critics argue that his four-year stint as an investment banker at Rothschild in 2008-2012 tarnish his credentials as a man of the people. Questions have been raised as to how his net financial assets, which he declared on 16th March (a pre-condition to being an official presidential candidate), amount to only €200,000.
Fillon is an experienced politician who was prime minister in 2007-2012. He convincingly won the Republican primaries on 27th November, beating Alain Juppé by 66.5% to 33.5% in the second round. He also enjoys by far the greatest support among political sponsors. Of the 14,296 politically-appointed members who sponsored a presidential candidate, Fillon obtained the backing of 25.4%, almost as much as Hamon (14.3%) and Macron (12.8%) combined. He is seen as the more acceptable face of right-wing politics in France with his tough stance on immigration balanced by the desire to keep France within a reformed Europe. During the recent televised debate he kept his cool and acted presidential when the other candidates did not.
Fillon was formally charged on 15th March for the misappropriation of parliamentary funds in relation to payments he made to his wife (as a National Assembly Deputy’s assistant) and to his children for work that they allegedly did not undertake. Mrs Fillon was also formally charged on 28th March and she is also being investigated for falsification of documents relating to her alleged fictitious work. Fillon has lost the support of Republican Party grandees who have urged him to pull out of the presidential race. He has also come under intense criticism for allegedly accepting a number of payments and expensive gifts in exchange for political favours including during his time as Prime Minister in 2007-2012 and these links may be formally investigated. His pro-Russian stance has also divided popular opinion. From a policy perspective, his pro-austerity stance – including increased working hours and pensionable-age – has arguably alienated those in the centre and left of the political spectrum.
An experienced politician who came fourth in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections with 11% of the popular vote. He was seen as having performed strongly in the 20th March televised debate and has since overtaken Hamon in the polls to fourth place on around 13-14%. His left-wing economic agenda and pro- immigration clearly has some appeal.
Mélenchon is very much on the left of the political spectrum which has seemingly alienated even centrist voters. His generous promises on the social and economic front imply significant tax rises which may prove unpopular given the already reasonably high tax take in France. His refusal to curb immigration or take a hard-line approach to national security is perceived as being as increasingly at odds with recent events, including numerous terrorist attacks on French and European soil.
Hamon enjoys the backing, even if partial, of the Socialist Party – one of the two largest parties in France – and has also received the endorsement of the Green Party led by Yannick Jadot. His promise to extend and broaden generous state-benefits and introduce a €750/month universal income for all French (adult) citizens has unsurprisingly found some support.
The backing of the Socialist Party is proving a double-edged sword given the unpopularity of Socialist President François Hollande and the general backlash against socialist policies in Europe (including in the UK and Netherlands). He was seen to have not performed strongly in the recent televised debate and has recently slipped to fifth in opinion polls behind Mélenchon, with only 10-11% support.
3. WHAT ARE ODDS OF CANDIDATE WINNING ABSOLUTE MAJORITY IN FIRST ROUND?
The odds of any of the presidential candidates winning more than 50% of the votes in the first round and being elected President without going to a second round are extremely low.
Since the start of the Fifth Republic on 4th October 1958, there have been ten presidential elections, of which nine have been conducted on the basis of a popular vote (in the 1958 elections an Electoral College voted for the President). All nine elections have gone to a second round (see Figure 4). No candidate has ever obtained more than 44.65% in the first round (Charles de Gaulle in 1965) with the winner of the first round on average gaining a third of the popular vote.
This is partly due to the large number of candidates with sizeable bases of support which have historically entered the first round and split the vote. This is in contrast to the US where typically only the Republican and Democrat candidates have stood any chance of becoming President, with even the third-placed candidate winning only a modest share of the vote.
There is nothing to suggest that this year’s French presidential elections will be any different. The independent centre-left Emmanuel Macron and National Front leader Marine Le Pen have led opinion polls for the first round for months but are still both stuck on around 25% (see Figure 5) and neither has pushed beyond 28%. Popular support for third-placed Republican candidate François Fillon has recovered slightly in recent days but has yet to break 20%. None of these candidates looks even remotely close to potentially obtaining 50% or more of the votes in the first round. If anything, the winner of the first round may win a smaller-than-average share of the vote (see Question 5 below).
Beyond the top five presidential candidates, only Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – the candidate of the euro-sceptic France Arise Party – is likely to get more than 1-2% of the popular vote in the first round based on latest polls. Dupont-Aignan, who won 1.8% of the votes in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, is currently polling around 3-4%.
4. DOES THE NUMBER OF SPONSORS HAVE A BEARING ON FIRST ROUND RESULTS?
The electoral pre-requisite of obtaining at least 500 sponsors has attracted much criticism across the political spectrum (see Fed 25 and 500 Godfathers, 10 March 2017). Candidates, in particular those of smaller political parties but also Le Pen, argue that the number of sponsors does not reflect the level of popular support.
Figure 6 would tend to support this view. The correlation between the number of sponsors and votes won in the first round of the 2007 and 2012 presidential elections is not that strong, particularly for candidates with few sponsors. For example Marine Le Pen obtained only 550 or so sponsors in each of these two elections but won, respectively, 10.4% and 17.9% of the votes in the 2007 and 2012 elections.
The relationship also looks tenuous if we compare the number of sponsors with opinion polls for the first round of the 2017 presidential elections (see Figure 7).
However, the correlation is somewhat stronger as the number of sponsors increases. In particular, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, who respectively won the 2007 and 2012 presidential elections, had respectively 3,885 sponsors and about 4,750 sponsors. If this statistical relationship holds this year, Le Pen’s chances of becoming president are slim. Conversely, the odds of Macron making it to the second round and winning the presidency would appear reasonably strong on this basis.
Moreover, this relationship between sponsors and election results would suggest that Fillon and Hamon may perform a little better in the first round than currently predicted by opinion polls. However, the odds of either Hamon or Mélenchon making it to the second round remain very slim. I would venture that one of them only stands a chance of making it to the second round if the other drops out of the presidential race and gives his support to the other left-wing candidate – a very unlikely scenario at this late stage of the race, in my view.
5. DOES NUMBER OF CANDIDATES HAVE A BEARING ON FIRST ROUND RESULTS?
Precedent suggests that the large number of presidential candidates this year (11) increases the probability of no candidate winning more than 50% and the top two candidates winning only a modest share of the vote in the first round of voting.
The share of votes gained by the winner of the first round which averaged around 44.1% in the 1965, 1969 and 1974 elections has since dropped sharply, averaging only 27.6%. Similarly, the share of the popular vote won by the second-placed candidate, which averaged 29.2% in 1965-1974, has since fallen to about 22.8%. As a result the aggregate share of the vote gained by the winner and runner-up of the first round has fallen sharply from an average of 73.3% to just above 50%. This is partly due to the larger number of presidential candidates in recent elections (see Figure 8).
Indeed, Figure 9 shows an inverse correlation between the number of candidates and the share of the votes gained by the winner, with one notable outlier – the 1974 elections where the top two candidates won 76% of the vote despite 12 candidates entering the first round. Similarly, Figure 10 shows an inverse correlation between the number of candidates and the aggregate share of votes gained by the winner and runner-up.
Assuming this relationship holds for this year’s elections and if we exclude the 1974 elections from the calculations:
- The winner of the first round of this year’s election should gain about 29% of the vote (see Figure 11).
- The top two candidates should win about 52% (see Figure 12), which would imply the runner-up winning about 23%.
This broadly tallies with current opinion polls which, in aggregate, have Le Pen and Macron winning about 50% of the first round vote. Of course this is a merely a statistical estimation based on a small sample and a historical relationship which could break down for a number of reasons. Nevertheless, it does reinforce the consensus view, which I share, that this year’s elections will very likely to go to a second round.
6. DOES FIRST ROUND RESULT HAVE A BEARING ON OUTCOME OF SECOND ROUND?
Precedent suggests the winner of the first round is more likely to win the second round, particularly if he/she won the first round by a significant margin. When the margin of victory in the first round has been small, the outcome in the second round has been harder to predict. This year’s election could prove to be a significant break with the past if Macron comes a close second in the first round but wins the second round by a significant margin.
At first glance, there is no obvious correlation between the share of the votes gained by the winner of the first round and his/her share of the vote in the second round (see Figure 13). But this is partly due to one outlier – the 2002 elections. Incumbent President Jacques Chirac (Republican) won the first round with only 19.9% of the vote and Front National Leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was a very close second (16.9%). The very low voter turnout (71.6%) and meek support for President Chirac, a mainstream candidate, partly reflected popular discontent with his presidency while Le Pen’s strong showing echoed a popular desire for more right-wing policies – in effect a protest-vote against the status quo.
However, in the second round Jacques Chirac won a massive 82.2% of the vote (vs 17.8% for Le Pen) on a far higher voter turnout of 79.7% – the largest ever margin of victory in a presidential election under the Fifth Republic. The share of support for Le Pen was broadly unchanged from the first round – the first time ever for a presidential candidate – as a result of two factors. First, the majority of those who voted for neither Chirac nor Le Pen in the first round voted for Chirac in the second. Also, a share of those who voted Le Pen in a first round “protest vote” switched their support to Chirac in the second round. In essence, the French electorate were simply not willing to elect as President a controversial extreme-right candidate, regardless of their misgivings about Chirac.
If these 2002 elections are omitted, there is a positive correlation between the share of the votes gained by the winner of the first round and his/her share of the vote in the second round (see Figure 14) – i.e. the larger his/her share in the first round, the higher the probability of him/her winning the second round (and thus becoming president).
However, in three of the past nine elections, the runner-up in the first round of the elections won the second round to become President – Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (Centrist) in 1974, François Mitterrand (Socialist) in 1981 and Jacques Chirac (Republican) in 1995 (the red diamonds in Figure 14).
- In both 1981 and 1995 the gap in the share of votes won between the winner and runner-up in the first round was particularly small (2.5 percentage points) and the margins of victory in the second round were narrow (51.8% vs 48.2% in 1981 and 52.6% vs 47.4% in 1995).
- In 1974 François Mitterrand won the first round convincingly (43.3% of the votes), with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing a distant second with only 32.6%. Yet Valéry Giscard d’Estaing won the second round to become president, albeit with the smallest ever share of the vote recorded (50.8%).
If Macron and Le Pen share the top two spots in the first round of this year’s election, as currently predicted by opinion polls, the above statistical analysis would point to a closely thought second round. However, opinion polls have consistently showed Macron winning by a margin of about 22 percentage points in a second-round run-off against Le Pen (see Figure 15). Should this outcome indeed materialise – a close-thought first round followed by a comfortable (but not crushing) victory by Macron in the second round, it would be somewhat unique in French presidential election history.
7. DOES IT MATTER WHO CAME THIRD OR FOURTH IN THE FIRST ROUND?
Focus tends to gravitate towards the top two candidates but the third or even fourth-placed candidates have, on occasion, had an important bearing on the outcome of the second round. This is unlikely to be the case in this year’s elections, in my view.
In elections since 1969, the top three candidates in the first round have represented the broad spectrum of the main political parties, namely the Communist, Socialist, Centrist, Republican and National Front parties (see Figure 16). The 1995 elections were somewhat unique as the second and third placed candidates in the first round – incumbent President Jacques Chirac (20.8% of the vote) and incumbent Prime Minister Edouard Balladur (18.6%) – shared a not too dissimilar political platform. Chirac was a Republican and while Edouard Balladur ran as an independent he had strong support from the Republican Party (and centrist party).
Chirac increased his modest share of the popular vote in the first round to 52.6% in the second round to become President, thanks in large part to Balladur’s support. The take-away, if any, was that a second-round candidate who can count on the support (and voters) of a candidate who performed strongly in the first round may have a better chance of becoming president.
This year’s election is pitting candidates with arguably very different political platforms. Bar Hamon and Mélenchon who share similar left-wing agendas, the candidates have little in common (see Figure 17).
While Le Pen and Fillon are to the right of the spectrum in terms of their views on immigration and national security, Le Pen wants to take France out of the EU and eurozone but Fillon does not. Macron and Le Pen’s economic policies share some common traits – including supporting the lower paid – but Macron is pro-EU and has a far more moderate take on immigration. Fillon and in particular Macron want France to remain in a reformed EU but Fillon’s economic policies are much further to the right than Macron’s (see Question 4, Key themes in this year’s elections, The Ultimate Guide to the 2017 French Elections – Part I, 7 March 2017).
However, opinion polls suggest that Macron will, in the second round, win a far larger share of the votes won in aggregate by Fillon, Hamon, Mélenchon and the other six candidates in the first round than Le Pen will (see Figure 15). Opinion polls reveal that first round support for third-placed Fillon and for Dupont-Aignan and Asselineau, both euro sceptic right-wing candidates, is somewhat more likely to switch to Le Pen in the second round. Conversely, support for the left-wing candidates (Mélenchon, Hamon, Arthaud) in the first round is far more likely to switch to Macron (than to Le Pen) in the second round.
Assemblée Nationale: National Assembly, the Lower House of French Parliament
Cohabition: A situation whereby the President and Prime Minister hail from two different political parties
Conseil Constitutionnel: A jurisdiction created in 1958 whose main task is to ensure that French laws are compatible with the Constitution. It is composed of nine members appointed by the President for a term of nine years. The current president is Laurent Fabius, a former Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy.
Europe Ecologie Les Verts: Green Party
En Marche!: The political movement led by Emmanuel Macron (translates to On the March! or Forward!)
Front National: National Front Party led by Marine Le Pen
La France Insoumise: The political movement led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon (translates to Unsubmissive France)
L’Élysée: The official residence of the President of France since 1848
Lutte Ouvrière: The party of Nathalie Arthaud (translates to Workers’ Struggle)
Ministère de l’Intérieur: French Ministry of the Interior
Nouveau Parti anticapitalist: The party of Philippe Poutou (translates to New Anticapitalist Party)
Parti Communiste Français: French Communist Party
Parti Radical de Gauche: Centre-left party with close affiliation to Socialist Party (translates to Radical Party of the Left)
Quinquennat: The five-year term served by each President of France
Sénat: Senate, the Upper House of French Parliament
Union des Démocrates et Indépendants: Centre-right party (translates to Union of Democrats and Independents
Olivier Desbarres currently works as an independent commentator on G10 and Emerging Markets. He has over 15 years’ experience with two of the world’s largest investment banks as an emerging markets economist, rates and currency strategist.
MY PRIOR RESEARCH ON FRENCH ELECTIONS AND EUROPEAN NATIONALISM
Going Dutch and Fed’s next big data hurdle (17 March 2017)
Fed 25 and 500 Godfathers (10 March 2017)
The Ultimate Guide to the 2017 French Elections – Part I (7 March 2017)
French elections in focus but US data likely to draw attention (24 February 2017)
Black Swans and white doves (8 December 2016)
EM currencies, Fed, French elections and UK reflation-lite (25 November 2016)
Nationalism, French presidential elections and the euro (18 November 2016)
 In order to qualify for the first round of voting, a candidate had to collect the signatures of at least five hundred elected representatives among a total of more than 47,000; these could be mayors, general councillors, regional councillors, deputies, senators and members of the European Parliament elected in France. A sponsor could only give his official support to one candidate. No more than 10% of the sponsors (i.e. 50) could come from the same department (sponsorship in excess of this threshold was discounted in the final tally). These rules were designed to ensure that the candidate enjoys broad-based support rather than just local or regional support.
 In the 1992 US Presidential elections independent candidate Ross Perot won 18.9% of the popular vote (but no electoral college votes), making him the most successful third-party presidential candidate in terms of the popular vote since Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 election.
 Before subtracting sponsors which breached the 50-sponsor-per-department limit.
 The Constitutional Court did not publish official sponsorship figures in 2012 but the Socialist Party claimed that Hollande had the confirmed support of 4,500-5,000 sponsors.
 The first and second rounds are independent votes with no votes from the first round carried through to the second round.