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The French Presidential Election
European Straits #13
Next Sunday is the first round of the French presidential election. The two candidates who gather the most votes will compete in the run-off two weeks later. The two frontrunners have long been Marine Le Pen, of the anti-immigration National Front, and young rising star Emmanuel Macron, who’s running as a commonsense centrist without having ever held elected office. But for two weeks now, the opinion polls have started to tell a very different story.
A first trend worth your attention is that François Fillon, the conservative candidate, is crawling back from the abyss into which the scandals surrounding him and his family once threw him. This reversal of fortune was anticipated for quite some time. Conservative voters tend to be quite reliable. Even if their candidate is now widely seen as corrupt and out of touch, it’s enough for them that he claims to be a devout Catholic and that he’s vowed to slash public spending and lower taxes for the rich. Furthermore, Fillon’s electorate is older than average, which is an invaluable asset: older people tend to go to the polls whatever the weather and their level of enthusiasm, whereas younger voters are harder to get out on a Sunday, especially with such an uninspiring election.
Another trend is the momentum recently enjoyed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist who’s running on the far left and is determined to have his revenge against his former party. His momentum has clear explanations: Mélenchon is a masterful debater and he’s uniquely gifted in making speeches on complicated topics and educating the masses. Above all, he has the luxury of being able to poach voters from many others candidates: those who would vote for Emmanuel Macron but don’t find him radical enough when it comes to getting rid of the establishment; those who would vote for Benoît Hamon, the sinking Socialist candidate, but prefer to support a left-wing candidate with an actual shot at winning (and rejoice at the idea of punishing the ruling Socialist Party); and those who would vote for Marine Le Pen, but ultimately prefer a populist from the far-left than one from the far-right.
Meanwhile, the two frontrunners have been slipping in the opinion polls: Le Pen because she was unconvincing during the TV debates and Mélenchon is now besting her in the populist race; and Macron because, well, he’s running as a commonsense centrist, which makes it hard to inspire enthusiasm beyond a younger, urban (and unreliable) electorate. As a result, the four main candidates are in a statistical dead heat and it’s become hard to tell who among them will qualify for the May 7 run-off.
One view is that in the age of personal computing and networks, elections tend to reward those who have the strongest momentum in the closing days. In that regard, the most probable winners are Fillon, who could only go up at this point, and Mélenchon, who’s lifted up even by the fear he inspires in the elite: the higher he gets in the polls, the more opinion leaders depict him as Hugo Chávez’s French reincarnation, and the more his momentum grows as so many angry voters want to give the finger to the establishment anyway.
Nonetheless, Macron could very well pull it off: on paper, it remains the most probable outcome. But even in that case, most ‘reasonable’ French voters, myself included, will end up with mixed feelings. Yes, 39-year old, unexpected Emmanuel will have saved us from this year’s weak and frightening field. But in a country so divided, which harbors so much anger, I still don’t see how a commonsense, apolitical problem-solver can settle the conflicts that have been drifting us backwards for so long. Obama tried that approach from 2008 to 2010: we should remember that his successors are the Tea Party and President Donald J. Trump.
You can lean a bit more, in a lighter mood, by watching John Oliver’s funny video on the French presidential election (full version here—you may need a VPN because oddly it's blocked outside the US).
Apart from that, I took a break last week in writing my new book ‘HEDGE’, but you can still read these two new notes about business strategy: