|At J-3, the polls appear to have settled one outcome of the first round – François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy will progress to the second-round run-off on 6 May, but not necessarily in that order.|
Whilst Sarkozy’s revival appears to have plateaued over the last 10 days, with Hollande once more edging ahead, they are both well within the margin of error. Not so the third and fourth candidates, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who now trail the front runners by at least seven points, and by double digits in some polls. We therefore have one race for gold and one race for bronze (though Mélenchon and Le Pen would surely disagree).
However, these are not races run separately. Precisely how well the two ‘minor’ candidates perform will undoubtedly influence the final placings of Hollande and Sarkozy. Unlike 2002, where mainstream and radical candidates shunned each other, producing a situation with a centre bloc and two flanking extremes, or 2007 where the Socialist and UMP candidates controlled their respective space, focusing centripetally on the significant candidature of François Bayrou, the 2012 race has retained a two-bloc format but with far more influential wings who have threatened throughout the campaign to deprive the main candidates of their respective leads over each other.
The blackmail potential of Marine Le Pen and the Front national has long been a given on the French political landscape. Sometimes formidable, as in 1995 or in 2002, sometimes with its sting drawn, as in 2007, its potential has made Gaullist candidates, both presidential and legislative, consider their position and decide whether to push right, to hold on to hard right voters, or distance themselves from the anti-system candidate, to reassure centrist support. In 2012, Sarkozy’s choice has been to move back to the Right, to try to repeat his 2007 performance in attracting former frontistes, but with limited success. Only if Marine Le Pen performs much worse than her polls will this tactic prove to have paid off. But Le Pen is polling between 14 and 17 per cent, approaching her father’s record score of 2002, no doubt due to many right-wing voters’ disenchantment with the incumbent president’s past five years.
On the left, a similar though less bitter dynamic has developed through the largely unforeseen rise of the dissident Socialist senator, now leader of the Front de Gauche, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Potentially the ‘third man’ of this first round, his populist appeal through feel-good interventionist policies and rabid Le Pen-baiting has drawn his polling well beyond François Bayrou and level with Le Pen. This performance has largely been credited with pulling François Hollande to the left, for instance motivating the announcement of a 75 per cent tax band for the highest earning tranche, and should he perform well in the first round he will undoubtedly pressure Hollande for further concessions.
In the event of a victory by Hollande, the extent to which he can or will deliver on these more left-wing policies is moot. Indeed, in the longer term, he may come to rue having moved away from a more austere centrist line on economic policy and thereby mismanaged the expectations of a section of his electorate unconvinced of the need for spending cuts and a smaller state.
In both cases, the capacity of the two extreme candidates to attract an expressive vote away from the vote utile for the mainstream will influence the first and second places.
There is a view that none of this matters – in whichever order the two front-runners progress to the run-off, Hollande’s continued lead of around five points in the polls will secure the presidency. However, should Sarkozy manage to win back a portion of the Le Pen electorate, and Hollande lose support to Mélenchon, a more significant gap between the two could psychologically dispirit Socialists whose candidate had led by a mile since last winter, and conversely reinvigorate a to-date depressed Right electorate. This is the ‘surprise’ outcome on Sunday which could herald an incumbent’s return to power.
This could be the first presidential election where five candidates have all cleared the 10 per cent bar. In that respect, François Bayrou is in a race against two other candidates – Bayrou 2002 and Bayrou 2007. He seems certain to beat his 2002 rival, but there is little chance of him repeating his more recent success. The polarised nature of competition has drawn support away from both flanks of his electorate, leaving only the core of educated social liberals which have characterised the MoDem electorate. Gimmicks such as the Konami code on his campaign website are still warmly received but cannot address a voter shortfall borne of the system dynamics.
These five candidates aside, the remaining five will do well to achieve a combined score of 10 per cent. For the Greens in their EELV manifestation, this election has proved disastrous. Eva Joly has proved unable to mobilise support to the level of a Waechter, Mamère or Voynet 1995, but more to that of Dominique Voynet in 2007. A focus on Green issues, at odds with an electorate concerned about economic issues, has left the EELV candidate on the periphery. Despite tireless campaigning by the party spokeswoman, Cécile Duflot (which should pay off in the forthcoming legislative race), Joly’s support has remained static.
Finally, in terms of bloc competition, the 2012 presidential election will resemble that of 2002 rather than 2007. Lower turnout can be anticipated from citizens’ declining interest in the campaign. Peripheral protest actors on the left and right should total about a third of the votes, a proportion similar to the combined scores of the extreme left and extreme right ten years ago (as opposed to less than a fifth in 2007). With an average polling score of 30 per cent, the mainstream left is at the exact same level as in 2002. This again shows that the ‘Mélenchon’ dynamic is not detrimental to Hollande –at least arithmetically– as it enables the left camp to increase its first-round support and project itself successfully in the run-off: in 2012 it should receive over 45 per cent of the vote, as opposed to only 36 per cent in 2007.
Bloc competition in the presidential elections (2002-2012*)
*2012: Average of the latest polls
Together, the right and the centre are back to their 2002 level, down to about 37 per cent. As for the extreme right, despite the many efforts by Marine Le Pen to soften the party’s image, its performance on Sunday seems unlikely to amount to the combined scores of Le Pen and Mégret on 21 April 2002.
Not surprisingly, the announced triumph of Hollande in the second round and consequent alternation in power after 10 years of right-wing hegemony has revived memories of Mitterrand’s historic victory in May 1981. The configuration that is likely to emerge from the first round might however take the French back to the much less agreeable reminiscences of 2002.