The centrist looks close to home and hosed right now
France is no stranger to revolutions. It’s therefore hardly surprising that there’s a ready temptation – particularly after the Brexit vote in the UK and Trump’s election in the US – to seek both contemporary and historic parallels in the possibility of a Le Pen victory in May. Indeed, it’s so tempting that the odds have come quite out of line with the real chances.
There are only two simple facts to remember: firstly, at virtually no point has Le Pen led in any of the opinion polls, against any of the major candidates. Only in a few head-to-heads against Hollande did she ever breach 50%, and that says as much about the popularity of Hollande and the PS as it does about Le Pen. And secondly, she is highly likely to make the second round, having enjoyed the solid backing of at least a quarter of the electorate for the last four years.
This isn’t to say that she can’t win. It is possible if Fillon could somehow push Macron back into third but it’s hard to see a scenario whereby the French public lift Fillon high enough to make the run-off, only to then reject him. Even now, after the battering he’s taken during March, he still leads Le Pen by about 13 points – and that’s when he’s only polling around 18% as against the mid-20s scores of Macron and Le Pen.
Might Macron suffer his own scandal? In a race in which there’ve already been so many twists and turns, we can’t rule the possibility out but it hasn’t happened so far and even if it did, would it count for all that much against such a flawed field? Not that there’s been much of a sniff of potential scandal anyway, despite this being the time when all candidates – even Le Pen – have an interest in taking him down. (It would be wrong to argue that if she did have some secret folder, she’d be better to wait for the second round: no-one knows how effective a negative campaign will be until it’s run and going early with it produces a more beatable run-off opponent – whether Macron or Fillon – if it works and buys time if it doesn’t).
Could the polls be wrong? Again, we can’t rule it out but not only would they would have to be all wrong by a long way, they’d also need to have the trend wrong. Over the last month, Le Pen has lost the 3-point first-round lead she had and instead, Macron has opened up a 1-point lead of his own. Fillon, by contrast, has drifted from about 20 down to 18, while the main candidates of the left – Hamon and Melenchon – trade blows in the low double-figures. Who is going to come out of the pack to deny the centrist?
There is of course still almost a month still to go to the first round but with Macron eight points or so clear of Fillon and heading outwards, and with him well over twenty points clear in a head-to-head against Le Pen, it would take something truly remarkable to lose it now.
After the experience of Trump and Brexit, commentators are naturally sceptical about being too dismissive of the chance that an electorate will take a leap in the dark. In those cases, however, the odds always overrated the mainstream (as noted on politicalbetting many times). This is different. The structure in France works heavily against the extremes. While odds of 1/2 aren’t terribly exciting, they still represent a 50% return in six weeks, which isn’t at all bad – particularly when the true odds, by my reckoning, are less than half that.