Their stupid voting system could let in an unpopular extremist
Just as one never-ending presidential election ends, another begins. France goes to the polls again tomorrow to pick the centre-right candidate of Les Républicains; their choice being between former prime minister Alain Juppé and former prime minister François Fillon.
Fillon is the extremely strong favourite (1/16 with Ladbrokes, to Juppé’s 8/1); a remarkable turnaround given that the polls in the week of the first round of the primary indicated a close three-way fight with former president Nicholas Sarkozy. In fact, the polling failure there was even worse than the recent high-profile ones in Britain and the US: Fillon won by some 15.5%.
As things stand then, next year’s general election will come down to a fight between Fillon and the Front National leader, Marine Le Pen. However, so much has changed within the last week that it would be foolish in the extreme to simply assume that today’s standings will be reproduced five months hence.
One factor which may come into play is the particularly stupid voting system used, which manages to import the worst features of FPTP into a majoritarian system. With only the top two candidates going into the run-off (assuming that no-one receives more than 50%, which they won’t), voters are obliged to think tactically as well as in terms of positive support. Can their candidate reach the last two? If not, do they still support them or do they switch to a more popular alternative to ensure that they do make it through?
Similarly, parties are obliged to think about playing a similar game. A field too crowded will ensure that none of those there are successful – but the game of who should stand and who should stand down is one of bluff and bravado as much as logical and mutual interest.
The best example of how it can all go wrong remains that of Lionel Jospin in 2002. The election should really have been there for the taking for the Socialist. The incumbent president, Jacques Chirac, was unpopular and Jospin was his only serious mainstream rival. However, the field was extremely fractured and while only three candidates polled more than 7%, the total share for those minor candidates came in at some 47%; enough to enable Jean-Marie Le Pen to scrape into the run-off with just 16.9%, to Jospin’s 16.2%.
As Le Pen proved in the second round, the FN was incredibly transfer-unfriendly (he gained less than 1% in the second round; Chirac gained more than 60%) and had France used full preference transfers as under AV, we can be virtually certain that he’d have been knocked out before the final round, which would likely have been the expected Chirac-Jospin battle.
But it wasn’t then and nor is it now. Could something similar happen? The risk is that it could be even worse. We’ve not had any general election polling since Fillon’s surprise breakthrough and to date, nearly all the polls named Juppé or Sarkozy as LR’s candidate (though given the polls’ performance last weekend, we have to be dubious about their utility anyway). What does seem extremely likely is that Marine Le Pen will finish in the top two: it’s over three years since any poll placed her outside and the FN seems to have enough solid support to keep it above 25%, which would be more than enough to qualify for the run-off and could be enough to lead the field.
Unlike 2002, short of some scandal, there probably isn’t anything that could prevent the FN reaching the second round; they simply have too much support. The question is who will face her.
It ought to be Fillon given his result last week. Will it though? He should certainly win the primary. His 44% from the first round is an extremely strong starting point and Sarkozy’s endorsement will help too. After that, it’s a more open question. His time as prime minister marked him as a reformist much keener on the market and ‘Anglo-Saxon ideas’ than is traditional in France (not the least of which is that his wife is Welsh).
If Fillon does win the primary, that’s likely to be enough to prompt François Bayrou of MoDem into the race (Bayrou had said he would support Juppé were he the nominee). When Sarkozy was named in the polls, Bayrou was usually quoted for the same reason, with the former president taking only around 20%.
Three other candidates need mentioning at this point: Emmanuel Macron, running as an independent but formerly a member of Hollande’s government; Hollande himself; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the left-wing Parti de Gauche. Of these, Hollande can be most readily dismissed. Polling dismally, he may not even win his primary and it’s not impossible that he won’t even stand, though the alternatives for the Socialists barely do any better. The other two candidates however poll in the mid-teens.
The risk for France is that as in 2002, a crowded field lets someone into the run-off with a score in only the upper teens which a large majority of the population actively would not want. In this case, that’d be Mélenchon. However, unlike in 2002, there wouldn’t even be a flawed mainstream candidate in the final round; the line-up instead being far left vs far right. It wouldn’t happen with AV.