|‘Will 2014 be the year of the populist party?’ Debates over the term ‘populist’ aside, there has been little doubt in recent media commentary over the high probability of a number of radical right parties performing very well in the forthcoming European elections. Geert Wilders’ PVV, Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ, Marine Le Pen’s FN are all polling at levels as high or higher than any previous European election.|
Geert Wilders (PVV), Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) and Marine Le Pen (FN)
As we recently noted, 2014 is still unlikely to be a year of continuous electoral victories for the FN in France. The municipal elections continue to present an arena in which the party struggles to make itself felt across some 36,800 communes in a highly disproportional system that rewards parties with established local networks.
However, the European elections, with eight closed regional lists headed in many cases by high-profile members of the FN politburo, present a much more accommodating system for a party looking to capitalise on political dissatisfaction with the Socialist executive and continuing economic crisis. Marine Le Pen herself will run in the North-West, Floriant Philippot in the East, while Jean-Marie Le Pen has been gathering the old guard of the party (Gollnisch, Arnautu, d’Ornano) in the South-East. In an IFOP poll published last October, the FN reached 24 per cent, two points ahead of the UMP in second place, and broadly repeated in a more recent poll, with the FN at 23 per cent of the vote.
Are polls suggesting almost one in four voters choosing the FN list in any sense realistic? The European ballot’s ‘second-order’ status might encourage us to think so. Because voters perceive these elections as less important, they are more prone to express dissatisfaction with parties of government or punish the incumbent for poor economic performances. They often turn in larger numbers to protest parties. Higher rates of abstention tend also to magnify changes that occur in the party balance.
In the run-up to May 2014, all these factors are aligned in the FN’s favour. The electoral cycle will be two years in, close to the halfway point that generally marks a low-point in incumbents’ support, and opposition parties perform better – generally a defining feature of second-order elections governed by the domestic cycle. In the 2009 European elections, abstention rose to a record high of 59.4 per cent. To make matters worse this time, polls show growing levels of Euroscepticism – French support for EU membership has fallen down to 55 per cent this month, its lowest level ever. A very high vote along the lines of the polls fits that narrative.
Yet, as Joël Gombin recently pointed out, these polls are subject to methodological bias, particularly as regards the socio-economic variables used in the quotas, which may inflate the FN estimate. Can we find another route to estimating the FN vote which doesn’t use vote intention?
In a series of papers forecasting the FN vote in second-order (European, regional, cantonal) elections since 2002, we found that the party’s performance, unlike in Presidential and legislative elections, has tracked its previous performance consistently, and varies from this so-called ‘random walk’ on two other variables: variation in party popularity, and the point in the first-order electoral cycle in which the election is held. Across the 22 second-order elections since 1984, these three pieces of information have allowed a prediction of the FN vote to within never more than 2 per cent of the result, and in half the cases within 1 per cent.
Because this model was originally designed ex-post, its forecast relies on party popularity taken immediately before the election and, since 2009, from surveys conducted quarterly. We need to estimate likely party support at that point, then, rather than simply relying on current popularity figures. Given the personalization of the FN, one would expect leader popularity to influence the party’s topline polling score. As can be seen from the chart below, there is indeed a very close relationship between the two. Following this pattern, Marine Le Pen’s current popularity gives an estimated 19.4 per cent (+/- 0.9) party popularity, down 3 percentage points from the latest polling figure released by TNS-SOFRES in early December 2013.
Marine Le Pen and FN popularities since January 2011
Source: TNS-SOFRES popularity data
As we recently noted, support for Marine Le Pen has begun to falter in January, revealing the political limits to the FN’s road to ‘de-demonization’.The extent to which that drop in leader popularity will affect the party itself over the next few months remains to be seen. At this stage, if we plug the revised figure for FN popularity into our second-order model, we get a forecast of 19.7 per cent of the vote for the party in the European elections. This second-order model would suggest the party could win a fifth rather than almost a quarter of the vote as indicated in the recent IFOP polls.
A fifth of the national vote still looks ambitious for the FN – but not dramatically so. Assuming a turnout similar to 2009, the ‘core’ 3.5 million voters who supported the FN in the 2012 legislatives would already give the party about 20 per cent of the vote. This would clearly represent a success for Marine Le Pen’s party, but with no guarantee of crossing the finish line first.
How popularity fluctuates in the last three months before the European elections will undoubtedly affect the final performance. If party support does not drop below 20 per cent, then the results should obviously be higher. Party competition in the EP elections will also be influenced by the municipals. Should the FN perform better than expected in March – exceeding the 13 or 14 municipalities that would constitute a very good performance – the polling popularity of the party should jump. A poor performance, either through failure to constitute the 500 lists the party is aiming for, thereby lowering overall mobilisation, or widespread refusal by UMP and other right lists to deal with the FN, reducing its perceived nuisance power, may conversely diminish its popularity.
As the FN seeks to build a broad pan-European alliance of radical right populists, the number of seats that the party could win in the European Parliament in May is of crucial importance. The largest regional constituency (by seats) with Paris, the South-East, has traditionally very high levels of support for the FN. Conversely the smaller West and South-West regions are barren for the party. Using our national forecast of 20 per cent and factoring in the regional polarization of the FN vote, we can estimate the number of seats that the party is likely to win across each of the eight regional constituencies (see map below).
EP election regional constituencies in France
Details of the seat forecasts are summarized in the table below. Regional polarization is aggregated from the 2012 legislatives and applied to our 2014 national estimate assuming a uniform national swing. As we have shown elsewhere, turnout should be very similar in France to 2009 at around 40.6 per cent of registered voters, as should spoiled and blank ballots at 4.3 per cent of the vote cast. This allows us to estimate the total valid vote in each constituency from which we calculate the quotient for seat allocation and the expected number of seats that the FN would win. These are then adjusted using the actual results of the 2009 EP elections across each constituency as a means to approximate the way in which remaining seats are allocated under the highest averages method used in EP elections in France.
Predicted number of FN seats in the 2014 Europeans
||2014 EP forecast
| EP constituencies
||Expect. FN seats
||Adj. FN seats
As can be seen from the table, controlling for regional polarization, a national score of 20 per cent could give the FN up to 18 seats in the next European Parliament. As would be expected, the bulk of the FN seats would be found across three regions: the North-West (4), the East (3) and the South-East (4). In contrast, the FN would win only 2 MEPs in the Paris region (Ile-de-France), nevertheless allowing the lead candidate and 9/11 conspiracy theorist, Aymeric Chauprade, to sit in the Strasbourg Assembly.
Whatever the shifts in popularity, it is clear the party will improve massively on the three seats it won in 2009. Whether it manages to take home more than the likely fifth of the vote forecast here, and where that places it in the party pecking-order, is still to be seen.