OPINION: Stop the hysteria, Le Pen won’t win… at least not this year

Given the saturated press coverage, the panicked pleas from France's mainstream politicians, not to mention Brexit and Trump you'd be forgiven for thinking Marine Le Pen was a shoo-in for the Elysée palace, but Paul Smith, a professor of Francophone studies, argues it just won't happen. At least not this year anyway.

OPINION: Stop the hysteria, Le Pen won't win... at least not this year
Photo: AFP

As the dust settles on the failure of Geert Wilders PVV to become the largest party in the new Dutch parliament, the focus of international media attention will shift fully to France, where the presidential campaign will step up a gear on Monday with the first live TV debate between the main candidates – although in reality the campaign has been full speed for the last six months.

In France the electorate will vote twice to choose their new president, in a two-round ballot on April 2″rd and May 7th.

One thing is almost certain: Marine Le Pen won’t win.

For a start there are reasons why the French have two rounds of voting in their presidential election.

The first is historical and dates back to a time when a small number of voters, defined by a tax qualification usually, would gather together to cast their votes, over a series of rounds, until one emerged with an absolute majority.

Later, the Republic reduced this to a two-round system. A candidate with an absolute majority in the first round would be automatically elected, but if that didn’t happen, then there would be a run-off, usually, though not exclusively, between the two best-placed candidates.

The second reason is a practical and political one. On reintroducing popular election of the head of state from 1965, Charles de Gaulle adapted the model. A candidate who achieved an absolute majority in the first round would be automatically elected. If that failed, the two best-placed candidates would go through to a second round where, by definition, the winner must enjoy an absolute majority.

De Gaulle was very clear that the institutional and symbolic strength of the presidency must lie in that moment where a majority backed one candidate. Thus, in France, unlike the USA, a candidate cannot win the presidential election with a minority of the popular vote, as George W Bush did in 2000 and Donald Trump did last November.

The system was designed to prevent an extremist coming to power, though in de Gaulle’s day, the extreme he feared was the French Communist party. Times change, but the principle doesn’t. If you can’t take 50% plus one of the votes cast, you cannot become president.

On paper, then, Le Pen’s chances of being elected eighth President of the Fifth Republic are remote to the point of invisibility.

The numbers are very clear. The most favourable opinion polls give her a first round score of 27%, which is, of course, a remarkable and unheard of figure for a far-right candidate, though roughly what her party scored in the regional elections in December 2015. Her main rivals, Emmanuel Macron and François Fillon on 26% and 17.5% respectively.

So, she looks, at the moment, like a shoo-in for the second round. But then it all falls apart. In the case of a Le Pen-Macron run-off, she would lose by a 60% to 40%. Most of the left would rally to Macron, as would Fillon’s centre-right voters. If Fillon were able to make up the gap between himself and Macron by 23rd April, then he would win the second round against Le Pen by 55% to 45%.

These are very much the scores one would anticipate. Left-wing voters supporting Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are willing to vote for Macron, but less likely to accept Fillon and his promise of more austerity and massive cuts in the public service sector. 

Opinion polls need to be handled with care. Pollsters themselves are very clear about the margins of error. But the Wilders case is instructive. Until the Dutch elections, it seemed that polls underestimated the swing towards ‘populism’, if we think that this is what Brexit and Trump mean.

'French First: What a President Marine Le Pen has in mind for France'

In Holland, the opposite occurred. The polls gave Wilders reason to expect that his party would be the largest, but, as seasoned French political commentator Alain Duhamel suggested on RTL last week, the populist vote there hit the glass ceiling.

Le Pen hopes that she can smash through that. But while opponents shouldn’t yield to complacency, she seems unlikely to win this time.

The votes simply aren’t there yet to carry her through the second round to victory.

There’s plenty of populism sloshing around the campaign and almost all the main candidates claim to be against the ‘system’, though that means different things to each of them. It just isn’t necessarily patriotic or nationalistic populism.

So whereas Brexit and Trump were ‘yes or no’ questions, France, like Holland, is offering voters a variety of ways to express their frustrations. Le Pen is not the only option.

That doesn’t mean that she can never win the presidency. In June, there will be elections to the National Assembly and five years as the leader of a large parliamentary bloc in opposition to Macron or Fillon might well strengthen Le Pen ahead of the 2022 election.

Failure on the part of one or the other to deliver on their promises could well signal the end of the Fifth Republic.

Paul Smith is an Associate Professor in French and Francophone studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

READ ALSO: Why winning the presidential election could be a poisoned chalice


Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”