A historic score for a far-right candidate and an incumbent president left battling for political survival – the first round of the French presidential elections was anything but dull. Here I analyse the first-round results and look forward to how the second round is shaping up.
The first round contained a few headlines. Turnout was higher than expected. François Hollande came first, pushing Nicolas Sarkozy into a humiliating second place (although with a smaller margin between them than exit polls originally predicted). Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, saw a decline in vote share relative to the scores he has recently obtained in the polls, with a final score of 11.1%. François Bayrou obtained a disappointing score of 9.13% - half the score he obtained five years ago, and not enough for him to repeat his role as “third man” and kingmaker. Eva Joly, the Green candidate, obtained a face-saving 2.31% - not a great result, but enough to give her something to work with in negotiations for possible government posts and parliamentary seats. However, the real headline that grabbed all the attention was the very high score for Marine le Pen. Although she did not quite achieve the 20% originally announced at the close of polls, she still obtained a record score for the Front National of 17.9%. This result was significantly better than the polls had predicted (although less than a point above the long-range forecast of political scientists Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/fp/journal/v10/n1/pdf/fp201121a.pdf). So how good a result is this, and why did the FN do well?
Marine le Pen did not repeat the success of her father in 2002 by qualifying to the second round, although her score was higher than his in 2002. The reason he did so well with a lower score was due to a fractured left-wing vote plus high levels of abstention, resulting in an exceptionally low score for the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. This time, turnout was much higher and there were fewer candidates (10 rather than 16), resulting in greater concentration of votes around the top candidates. One of the 16 candidates in 2002 was a second far-right candidate; his score, combined with that of Jean-Marie le Pen, provided a total far-right score higher than the one witnessed in 2012.
Despite these caveats, Marine le Pen will be pleased with her status as the “troisième homme” of the election (it is telling that no-one has sought to feminise this term). She turned around a party that had been seen in decline after a disappointing performance in 2007, with barely 10% of the vote. Why did she do so well? There are five main explanations. Firstly, she was helped by the economic crisis and its particular consequences for the Eurozone. People are more likely to vote for the FN when unemployment is high, and disaffection with the Euro will have made le Pen's anti-European discourse more appealing. Secondly, there was a real lack of enthusiasm for the mainstream candidates. Sarkozy is deeply unpopular, and Hollande is viewed as bland and uninspiring. Le Pen captured the votes of those who wished to reject Sarkozy without supporting Hollande. Thirdly, the Toulouse shootings helped put the FN's favourite campaign themes - fear, immigration, law and order, security - high on the agenda. This was reinforced by the fourth factor, namely Sarkozy's shift to the right, which also helped to keep the FN's preferred issues on the agenda.
Finally, we should not underestimate the impact of having a younger woman as leader of the party. Marine le Pen helped to "de-demonise" the party and give it a more acceptable image. This appears to have been particularly effective with women voters. Marine le Pen got similar scores from men in 2012 to her father in 2002. But her scores among women were 3 percentage points higher than in 2002, thereby tapping an electorate that traditionally does not support the far-right. Although women were still less likely than men to support the FN, having a woman leader of the party helped to narrow the gender gap considerably and bolster the party’s support with a new wave of voters.
Given le Pen’s success, her electorate will now be of crucial importance as the two remaining candidates move forward into the second round. This is where the battle really begins. Two topics currently dominate the discussion: debates and transfers. Sarkozy expects to perform better than Hollande in the head-to-head debates, and has challenged Hollande to three debates (Hollande has declined, presumably because he also expects Sarkozy to perform better than him). Evidence from previous elections suggests that debates have only a marginal impact on voter preference and have never succeeded in reversing the candidates’ position in the polls, but with Sarkozy facing a yawning gap in the second round, anything to garner a few extra votes has to be worth a try. The other way to gain new votes is to persuade the supporters of other candidates in the first round to transfer their support to one of the remaining candidates in the second round.
Joly has offered her clear, unequivocal support for Hollande in the second round – as well she might, given her party’s dependence on the Socialists for any hope of future representation in parliament and government. Mélenchon has positioned himself “against Sarkozy” rather than for Hollande, although in a two-horse race there is little difference in practice. The vast majority of supporters of both these candidates are expected to back Hollande in the second round.
More complex is the issue of Bayrou’s voters. Bayrou has not yet backed either candidate, instead indicating that he will talk to both, see who makes him a better offer, then “fulfil his duty” by throwing his weight behind one or the other. Clearly he is selling himself to the highest bidder, hoping to offer the promise of a few more votes in exchange for some kind of deal. It is unclear what either candidate could offer him, though. Hollande can probably win without having to court Bayrou, and will be unwilling to offer government or parliamentary positions when other electoral allies already need to be appeased. Sarkozy might promise a government post, but this is of little worth unless he wins (which currently looks unlikely), and Sarkozy has already calculated that he has more interest in lurching to the right and chasing FN voters, which would make his policies unpalatable for the centrist supporters of Bayrou. As for the FN, le Pen has encouraged her voters to destroy Sarkozy, presumably so that the FN can step into the hole left by a weakened UMP and become the main party of opposition to a future Socialist majority. Such a scenario looks unlikely, given that FN voters tend not to do as they are told, and in any event are much closer ideologically to Sarkozy than to Hollande. A significant proportion will abstain, and some of the remainder will support Hollande. What percent will transfer to Sarkozy is anyone’s guess (those pollsters and experts who have guessed have ranged from 37% to 69%). Sarkozy will do all he can to persuade as many of them as possible to support him, but it looks unlikely that this will be sufficient. With Hollande having a head start and gaining nearly all the other left-wing transfers and some of the Bayrou and FN votes, Sarkozy will face a real uphill battle to have any hope of turning this around.
So what can we expect over the coming fortnight? Debategate will continue, not only to put pressure on Hollande but also to humiliate him for being reluctant to face Sarkozy. Sarkozy will try to woo voters from both the centre and the far-right, and will attack Hollande hard on his experience, his policies and the threat that a Socialist president would take France down the same path as Greece or Portugal. Meanwhile, Hollande will focus his efforts on reminding voters of why they don’t want another five years of Sarkozy. Sarkozy will probably see a bump in the polls after any debates, and the gap between the candidates is likely to narrow. But reversing the gap and winning a second term is starting to look like mission impossible for Sarkozy.