A brief guide to the French election: Populism across the spectrum —left, right and centre

As part of his Senior Fellowship, Matthew Elliott is researching the rise of populism and examining the underlying factors contributing to the rise (or otherwise) of populist movements across the world. His second paper is a brief guide to the French election, taking place on Sunday 23 April. Will Marine Le Pen succeed where Geert Wilders failed.

A report for the Effective Government programme

Published 21 Apr 2017


  •  A brief guide to the French election: Populism across the spectrum —left, right and centre [PDF]
  • By Matthew Elliott
  • April 2017
  • Published by the Legatum Institute

Having written about the March 2017 Dutch election for the Legatum Institute, Matthew Elliott has now turned his attention to the French Presidential and National Assembly elections taking place over the coming weeks. He focuses particularly on the rise of populism – across the political spectrum in France – and examines the parallels with Brexit in the UK.

The report also includes polling analysis by James Kanagasooriam and Claudia Chwalisz, Head of Analytics and a Consultant at Populus, examining how an “enthusiasm gap” makes the result of the first round of voting on Sunday 23 April much closer than polls are suggesting. And following the terrorist attack in Paris on the eve of the election, with the tragic loss of a police officer, the race for the presidential run-off has been rendered even more unpredictable.

The report includes five key findings:

1. Populism is winning across the political spectrum in France

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-left national platform has usurped the more pro-European, centre-left platform of Benoît Hamon, making Mélenchon the standard-bearer of the left. Similarly, Marine Le Pen’s nationalist appeal has long attracted more support than the Republicans, as well as prompting them to back the more nationalist, conservative candidate François Fillon. Even the pro-European, federalist former banker Emmanuel Macron represents his own breakaway movement with a radical reform agenda that might be thought of as a kind of centrist populism.

2. Macron is favourite to win, but it’s not in the bag

James Kanagasooriam and Claudia Chwalisz highlight in their polling analysis, that the race between Macron and Fillon for second place in the first round becomes a lot closer if you adjust the headline poll numbers to account for the ‘enthusiasm gap’. And should Mélenchon continue to draw away support from Hamon, some of the support Macron enjoys as the candidate most likely to prevent a Le Pen-Fillon second round might also switch to him, propelling the hard-left populist into second place. So in this close four-way race, it is by no means certain that Macron will make it into the second round.

3. If Macron is knocked out, Le Pen has a credible path to victory

Polls show Le Pen losing a second round election heavily to Macron, but with a narrower margin to Mélenchon and, especially, Fillon. Although Fillon’s support is much more evenly split between Macron and Le Pen than Macron’s is between Fillon and Le Pen, the important factor is that Macron, Hamon and Mélenchon supporters are much more likely to abstain in the event of a Le Pen-Fillon second round than Fillon, Hamon and Mélenchon supporters would be in a Le Pen-Macron second round.

4. This election might be a staging post for a Le Pen victory in 2022

The favourite, Emmanuel Macron, has promised to raise growth and to cut unemployment to 7 per cent. But if he wins and should his new party not win sufficient support to champion his plans in the National Assembly, he will find it much more difficult to implement his labour market and public services reforms, and could quickly become a lame duck president. This will be all the more difficult if the less economically liberal National Front displaces the Republicans as the majority right-wing party. A cyclical global economic downturn is also likely at some point before 2022. If the EU is tarnished by further economic turbulence in the Eurozone, or another migration crisis, it is possible to imagine a National Front victory in 2022.

5. There will be big implications for Brexit whoever is elected

Mélenchon and Le Pen are openly hostile to the EU while Fillon is eurosceptic. Only Macron is committed to the European project. So there will be implications for the Brexit process, whoever is elected. While Le Pen has spoken of wanting to rebuild relations with the UK and Mélenchon says the Brexit voted “must be respected” by organising an exit “without a spirit of vengeance or punishment”, victory for a strongly eurosceptic candidate in one of the EU’s two core members would be a bigger crisis for the EU than Brexit. A Fillon or Macron victory, however, would represent less of a threat to the status quo in Brussels. While they are both less sympathetic to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, their election would result in greater political stability, making the Brexit negotiations less complex.

Commenting on the report, Matthew Elliott said:

“Populism is on the rise across the world. We witnessed it in the UK in the EU referendum last summer, we saw it with the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and populists on both the right and left made big strides in the Dutch elections. “As France goes to the polls in the first round of voting tomorrow, the Legatum Institute has assessed the state of play, and what the rise of populism might mean.

“Polling suggests Macron and Le Pen are clear favourites to reach the run-off, but with polling so often wrong in the last few years, we could see a much closer result than expected come Sunday night.”

Read the full report here.

Read the French Legislative Elections 2017: First Round Analysis here.


A brief guide to the French election: Populism across the spectrum —left, right and centre

Apr 2017

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