If France had an Electoral College like the U.S., there is a chance that National Front leader Marine Le Pen could win the runoff round of the presidential election on May 7.
A map of the first-round election results showing who led in each of the 96 departments indicates a country almost evenly divided between supporters of Le Pen and her rival in the runoff, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.
But France has a direct popular election for president and French polls — which called the first-round results with almost pinpoint accuracy — say that Macron will get more than 60% of that popular vote and Le Pen less than 40%.
The runoff vote has so many unprecedented variables, however, that pollsters may not be gauging this second round with the same accuracy.
French Presidential Election: What's Next?(1:52)
The French people have spoken: The country's next president will be centrist Emmanuel Macron or the far-right's Marine Le Pen, after the two candidates topped the polls in the first round of voting. WSJ"s Niki Blasina explains what happens next and what challenges the winner will face. Photo: Getty Images.
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Although Macron claims to be neither left nor right, he was a Socialist cabinet member under outgoing President François Hollande. This means the center-right has no candidate in the second round for the first time in the six-decade history of the Fifth Republic, after a corruption scandal torpedoed the chances of their candidate, former Prime Minister François Fillon.
In his concession speech, Fillon called upon his party, the Republicans, to vote against Le Pen, saying he would vote for Macron.
But no one really knows how many of 20% of voters supporting Fillon will simply abstain in the second round, or take the very French path of voting but turning in a blank or spoiled ballot so it won’t be counted.
Ditto for the nearly 20% that voted for Jean-Luc Melénchon, an independent to the left of the Socialist Party. His radically euroskeptic agenda had more similarities with Le Pen’s platform than with that of Macron.
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Nonetheless, U.S. polling star Nate Silver sees virtually no chance for Le Pen to win the second round and become France’s president.
Although Donald Trump’s surprising victory in November is taken as a model for how Le Pen could upset forecasts, Silver says she is in a much bigger hole than Trump ever was.
After conceding that pollsters have had trouble accurately measuring support for far-right parties like the National Front, even the historical 9% margin of error in some of these polls — which would mean a miss of 18% in a two-way race where every extra vote for the far-right candidate is one less for the rival — would not be enough to overcome the 25% lead Macron currently has for the second round.
In spite of this, one prominent analyst, Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group, says Le Pen’s chances of winning are much higher than the polls indicate and could be as high as 40% (compared with the 30% chance that the most cautious forecasters gave to Trump), or “almost a coin flip.”
Bremmer argues that Macron, a former cabinet minister and investment banker, has not been able to make a credible case that he is an “anti-establishment” candidate simply because he founded his own party. And Le Pen is already hammering away at her rival as the “candidate of oligarchs.”
Euro Pop: Markets Jump After French Election(1:23)
French stocks and the euro both gained after Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen advanced to the second round of the French Presidential election.
Bremmer rejects the forecast by The Economist that Le Pen’s chances are only 1% because the magazine’s polling model ignores the imponderables of this election and the profound dissatisfaction of the French with their political establishment.
“Any model ‘entirely based on polls,’ like The Economist’s,” Bremmer wrote on the eve of Sunday’s first round, “fails to appreciate the roller coaster French politics has been taken on over the past year. Just about every scenario which was plausible under the normal rules has been crushed. French voters are in a ‘dégagiste’ [clearing out] mood. No preordained scenario will do.”
French analyst Pierre Briançon adds a few other considerations to temper the inevitability of a Macron victory.
He notes that the combined first-round vote for Le Pen, Melénchon, and the numerous fringe candidates added up to 49%. “The presidential election is unlikely to bridge the big divide between the part of France that accepts globalization and European integration,” this analyst writes, “and that which sees an open economy as the main cause of its social ills.”
Briançon also suggests that Melénchon’s late surge was due to poaching Le Pen voters who may now return to their original choice. And the Republicans, he suggests, currently venting their anger at Fillon for sabotaging their chances, will seek to win a majority in the June parliamentary elections and force Macron to pick a center-right prime minister, effectively making the new president a figurehead.
Markets greeted Macron’s first-round win with big gains, confident now that the former banker will win the French presidency. Odds are that they are right, but that doesn’t mean the battle for France’s soul will be over.