‘President Le Pen’ could ride voter apathy to victory

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front and candidate for the 2017 French presidential elections delivers a speech at a presidential campaign rally in Lille on Sunday (26 March). France holds the first round of the 2017 presidential elections on 23 April. [Thibault Vandermersch/EPA]

The mobilisation of National Front voters and widespread apathy among the rest of France’s electorate may combine to hand Marine Le Pen a historic victory in the second round of the presidential election in May, an analyst told EURACTIV France.

Minority candidates can win elections; the most recent example being Donald Trump in the United States. Brexit was another example: in the minority throughout most of the campaign, support for the Leave vote reached a high-water mark on the day of the referendum.

At the political research centre of Paris’ Science Po University (CEVIPOF), electoral specialist Serge Galam analysed the possible outcomes of this year’s French presidential election, focussing on the effects of abstention.

“I used an empirical observation from my entourage as a starting point: that some voters will not want to vote in the second round of the election because they reject Marine Le Pen, François Fillon and Emmanuel Macron equally. By modelling these abstentions, we see that they could lead to the election of Le Pen,” the researcher told EURACTV.fr.

“Republican front”

On previous occasions when the National Front has made it to the second round of an election, the remaining voters tend to unite in a so-called “republican front”, blocking the extreme-right party’s progress. But this phenomenon, which has weakened in recent years, may be further undermined by the fact that the main candidates in this presidential election appear to have just as many detractors as supporters.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s former advisor Henri Guaino, when asked to choose between Le Pen and Macron in the second round, said he would rather go fishing.

The Left Front’s rhetoric is more forceful, with its talk of dégagisme: the complete rejection of the current political class, including Fillon, an MP of 30 years, and Macron, President François Hollande’s former advisor and economy minister.

With the notable exception of Le Pen’s supporters, a large proportion of the French electorate may see little reason to go to the ballot box at all.

“This is abstention by omission. A bit like when you have to take an unpleasant but effective medicine: you tend to forget,” said Galam.

Big difference in mobilisation

On the other hand, far-right voters could buoy their candidate to victory in the second round, even if she only enjoys the support of a minority of the French population at large, according to Galam.

With 44% support in the second round, Le Pen could clinch the election by 50.07%. With turnout predicted at 76%, she would have to mobilise 90% of her own supporters and rely on a turnout of 70% among all other voters; a scenario that is hardly far-fetched.

“It all depends on the abstention differential. But the surprising thing is that the gap is so slim,” the researcher said.

As this example shows, an abstention differential of just 20 points is enough to provide a minority candidate in the polls with enough votes to win on election day.

“I had intended not to vote, but now I will. I hope this study will open people’s eyes to the fact that not voting is as good as supporting Marine Le Pen in the second round,” Galam said.

According to the latest polls published on Tuesday (28 March), Le Pen is leading the voting intentions for the first round (26%), followed by Macron (24%) and Fillon (20%). But the National Front leader is expected to poll 39% in a second round run-off against Macron, and 42% against Fillon.

Floating voters will decide French election

With eight weeks to go before the French presidential election, voters seem confused. Half of the electorate has not yet decided which candidate to support. Euractiv France reports.