French presidential election: Between Anguish and Relief for French Voters

Six Insights Before the Second Round

After a nail-biting election campaign, characterised by a series of scandals and at times a lack of in-depth policy debate, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Elections were both a source of anguish and relief for many French voters.

The independent candidate Emmanuel Macron came first with 24 percent of the vote, just ahead of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National with 21 percent. Conservative leader of the Republican party, François Fillon, and the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, were both eliminated with 20 percent and 19.5 percent of the vote, respectively.

At 79 percent, the turnout was slightly lower than in 2012, but still one of the highest in 40 years and higher than in many elections in other European countries.

Burson-Marsteller’s key insights ahead of the second round on May 7:

• A worrying and historic breakthrough for the far-right

Although many feared even more support for Le Pen, the Front National’s presence in the second round represents a dramatic shift in French politics. The far-right party, with its anti-immigration and nationalist policies, garnered the support of 7.6 million voters – its highest ever score in a presidential election.

• The French people more divided than ever

Together, Macron and Le Pen won less than 50 percent of the total vote, casting a shadow over their respective legitimacy to implement their programmes, whatever the result of the second round. The campaign exposed fault lines in French society: Supporters of globalisation and European integration versus nationalists and sovereigntists. A clear divide also emerged between the voting trends of rural versus urban areas.

• The two traditional parties in deep crisis

For the first time in modern French history, neither of the main parties reached the second round. The right-wing Les Républicains, were beset by embarrassing personal scandals involving François Fillon and are now reflecting how they managed to lose an election which had been billed as theirs to win only a few months ago.

As for the Socialists, the party veered to the left with the candidacy of Benoit Hamon, who achieved a mere six percent of the vote. A debate is now underway on how they will put the pieces back together. Centrist voices in the party may be tempted to create a new faction, possibly under the leadership of former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, or even to defect Macron’s “En Marche” movement.

• A good night for pollsters

Many pollsters were noticeably smug on election night, having successfully forecast a Macron-Le Pen second round. This may go some way to restoring confidence in polling institutions, who had been heavily criticised after failing to foresee Brexit, the election of Donald Trump or Fillon’s victory in the right-wing primary.

• Macron is favourite to win the second round… but anything can happen

Almost all leading politicians – from left and right – immediately came out in support of Macron. The noticeable exceptions were Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Laurent Wauquiez, a well-known right leaning politician, both of whom refused to explicitly endorse Macron. This flies in the face of the longstanding tradition, whereby mainstream politicians call to vote against the Front National, irrespective of the opponent in the second round of any elections.

The polls for the second round currently have Emmanuel Macron in the lead with approximately 60-62 percent of the vote, against 38-40 percent for Marine Le Pen. But, with some Mélenchon supporters vowing to abstain and the possibility of a lower turnout – the election falls on a bank holiday weekend – the outcome on Sunday 7 May is still uncertain.

• The big question: how to secure a Parliamentary majority

If Emmanuel Macron does win the second round, his capacity to form a Parliamentary majority in June’s legislative elections is in doubt. He has no formal party structure behind him and his “En Marche” movement was created just over a year ago. To govern, he is likely to need to form a complex coalition, combining his own new deputies and those from the existing mainstream left and right parties. In the unlikely event of a Le Pen victory, she too would struggle to govern.

So, while the French – and many across Europe, for that matter – may be somewhat relieved that Le Pen did not win in the first round and that a Macron victory seems likely, the final re-configuration of the French political system remains in the balance.

This post was contributed by Arnaud Dechoux, Manager, Public Affairs & Crisis, and Jonathan Hooley, Senior Associate, Public Affairs & Crisis.

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