Economics and politics - comment and analysis
24. April 2017 I Will Denayer I Countries and Regions, Europe, General, General Politics

Quel cirque. Analysing the French elections

The first round of the French presidential elections is over. Figure 1 shows the result.

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Figure 1: result (97% of the votes counted).

Macron won, as was widely expected and predicted. This time, the pollsters were correct. Le Pen, who polled a couple of months ago at around 25%, comes in second at 21.43%. Mélenchon did pretty well with his Leftist program – just not good enough. Hamon is last with a miserable 6.35%. Hamon is a poor orator. He has no charisma and he belongs to the party of Hollande, who’s personal popularity stands now at 4%, an all-time record low. Hamon was the only one who shunned the rhetoric. He gave no long speeches about la patrie, its wonderful history and its pluralist secular character. Instead, he dealt with a) a reform of EU economic governance; b) public investment; c) the fight against unemployment; d) reconversion as a strategy against climate change. I liked him.

Fillon already said that he will support Macron in the second round. Mélenchon refuses to support Macron. He receives a lot of criticism for this position. I am not saying that it is the right decision, but it is his and I can understand it.

The geographical distribution of the vote is interesting. More than ever before, France is a divided country, it almost looks like the US, with its ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states.

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Figure 2: French departmental voting in the first round of the 2017 election.

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Figure 3: Unemployment in France per department. The correlation between the rate of unemployment and voting for the Front National seems to be high.

Figure 4 shows the relationship between the level of educational attainment and political preference.

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Figure 4: inf au bac (no high school diploma), niveau bac (high school), bac + 2 (higher education of 2 years), bac +3 et plus (higher education of 3 years and more).

In the group of people with no high school diploma, 17% votes for Melenchon (this is not bad), but only 4% votes for Hamon (this is the Hollande effect), Macron and Fillon get 19% each and Le Pen gets 30%! On the other side of the distribution (higher education of 3 years or more), Mélenchon gets 20% of the vote – this is by no means bad (it is probably due to the younger generation of university educated people who are tired of all the economic dysfunction). Hamon gets 10% here (the highest percentage of all groups), Macron get 30%, Fillon 24% and Le Pen only 9%!

Can Le Pen win?

Yes, but it is extremely unlikely, much more so than a Trump presidency in the US in 2016.

Macron leads Le Pen by 26 per cent in the polls. Betting markets give Le Pen a 13% chance (one in seven). The Economist gives Le Pen 1% (and it is a polling-based model). Many question the accuracy of polls, although Sunday they proved to be accurate. It is not completely right to say that in the last American election all pollsters were utterly wrong. Models varied wildly. For example, Silver gave Trump a 29% chance to win (using a polls-only model), while the Princeton Electoral Consortium gave Trump less than a 1% chance. Well, Trump did win, but Trump trailed Clinton by ca. 2 percentage points in the average swing state (where the election was decided) and that is well within the common routing 2 to 3 point polling error. It is what can be expected. Macron, on the other hand, leads by 26% (see here).

What about the hypothetical hidden support for Le Pen that does not show up in the polls? Can that make the difference? The phenomenon is well known: people refrain from telling pollsters that they support extreme right or ‘politically incorrect’ candidates. It is called the social desirability bias. A voter who holds contemptuous views towards a racial minority group might not want to express those views in a phone call with a stranger conducting a poll. Well, Nate Silver looked into it. He found that there is no evidence that candidates such as Le Pen systematically outperform their polls. Across dozens of European elections since 2012, nationalist and right-wing parties have been as likely to under-perform their polls as to over-perform them. In other words, the bias does not play (see here).

In fact – and this is really important – in European elections since Trump’s victory the trend has been for nationalist candidates to under-perform, although I take Silver with a pinch of salt here: yes, Wilders did not win in the Netherlands, but it is not true that his party ‘faded away:’ it still won five seats more than in 2012. In Austria, Hofer, considerably under-performed his polls in the presidential re-vote last December. According to Silver, this is the Trump effect: the Donald is not popular in Europe and his victory does not favour candidates who emulate his rhetoric (see here).

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Figure 5: Yes, Le Pen under-performed relative to previous polls, but this does not mean that the Front National is not gaining support (Source: AFP).

Silver concludes: “If Le Pen if can significantly narrow her deficit with Macron over the next two weeks, Macron’s supporters will have reason to worry. If she still trails by something like 26 points on election day, however, a Le Pen victory would be essentially unprecedented. She could beat her polls by as much as Trump and Brexit combined and still lose to Macron by almost 20 points” (see here).

I think that pretty much sums it up.

En marche towards hell  

We now live in a world in which at each election the foundations of the political order are at stake. They are at stake. Imagine the sheer horror of a Le Pen presidency.

So Le Pen needs to be stopped and when Macron will succeed in two weeks we will all exhale: democracy and our institutions will have prevailed and ‘everybody’ will be happy. Yes, everybody. “Hurray,” the liberals will say, “Macron is a real liberal, just like us. To hell with social regulation.” “Hurray,” the conservatives will say “Here is a real faux leftist, one that really understands business. He will serve us well!” “Hurray,” will say the social democrats, “He is one of us – we forgot who we are anyway, but this is exactly what we want: a neoliberal social democrat promoting the EU oligarchy.” “Hurray,” will say the Greens, “there will be no Le Pen and Macron is not a traditional politician” (whatever that may mean). “Hurray” will say capital, “now we can continue getting our tax cuts and other gifts and to hell with all this talk about investment, creating employment, EU economic governance reform, social consultation, unions, social benefits and pensions.” They are saying this already – have a look at how the stock market reacted to the electoral result: with euphoria. “Hurray,” says the EU oligarchy, “He is one of us, he will construe a Franco-German low wage axis, the rich will get richer and the rest can live in what remains of Europe. It is not our fault that it will look like Albania if we get on with it and besides we do not care.” “Hurray,” says the extreme right, yes we lost this time, but let the dysfunction grow and one day we will find a better fascist and power will fall into our hands.”

As you see, everybody is happy.

My guess is that it will stay this way. I do not believe in the pitchfork hypothesis: the idea that the ‘people’ will revolt and come after the rich strikes me as both romanticist and nihilist. Nor do I think that the extreme right will eventually gain power in Europe, although it can happen in a couple of countries – Hungary and Poland for example. I think that, politically speaking, ultimately nothing will happen. Social polarization will further increase. The rich will get constantly richer. Educated people, families with two incomes will do relatively well – on the condition they do not get ill too much or do not lose their job for too long. There will be an increasing segment of those who are just managing and an increasing number of those who are not managing – Europe’s users of food banks, the homeless, people without health care, etc., the slaves of the new feudalism. Or what else do you think will happen? “French workers simply make too much,” says Macron. “The Britons had the chance to have had Margaret Thatcher.” And “Mass employment in France is because workers are being paid too much.” “In view of the economic situation, unpaid overwork is becoming a necessity” (Macron in Davos) (see here). There will be no resurrection, no ideological re-orientation of social democracy. The traditional left will never make a difference. It is too small and there is no strategy. One does not need the extreme right to produce Nacht und Nebel. The ‘democratic’ forces have shown that they are very well capable of bringing it on all by themselves.