The six possible runoffs that could result from France’s Sunday election

A welcome ceremony at the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the French president. (radututa / 123rf)

On Sunday, voters in France — soon to be the second-most populous member-state of the European Union — will decide the two finalists, out of a field of 11, who will battle for the French presidency next month.

Since February, polls have consistently shown centrist independent Emmanuel Macron and hard-right Marine Le Pen, the leader of the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Front national, most likely to advance to the May 7 runoff. Macron, a former economy minister in outgoing president François Hollande’s administration, has waged an unorthodox and personalized campaign, pulling supporters from both the center-right and the center-left under the banner of a new political movement, En marche (Forward).

Le Pen, who has somewhat toned down the rhetoric of the party that her father founded in 1972, remains a hard-right warrior championing economic nationalism, with plenty of attacks on the European Union, the scourge of Islam and the woes of immigration. It’s a stand that may yet boost her in the wake of a terrorist strike that killed two policemen on the Champs-Élysées Thursday night in the heart of Paris, as even US president Donald Trump noted early Friday morning.

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One-time front runner François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains, leaped into a strong lead last November after defeating former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé for the Republican nomination. Since February, however, Fillon has dropped to third place after police opened a formal investigation into whether Fillon used over €800,000 in public funds to pay his wife (Penelope) and his children for essentially ‘fake’ jobs — popularly known as ‘Penelopegate.’ Refusing to drop out, however, Fillon — a social conservative and Thatcherite liberal who served as Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years — has waged an energetic and defiant campaign, even under the cloud of corruption charges.

Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged in the polls after strong performances in two debates in March/April sent left-wing voters swooning. The far-left candidate of La France insoumise (Unsubmissive France) and a coalition of communists and other far-left groups, Mélenchon has gained support at the expense of the official candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), Benoît Hamon. A former education minister and left-wing rebel who ultimately resigned in opposition to Hollande’s centrist push for labor reform, has campaigned on a deeply leftist platform of his own, with calls for a universal basic income, a 32-hour work week, a tax on robots and a higher minimum wage. After the deeply unpopular Hollande ruled out a reelection bid, Hamon won the Socialist nomination in January, defeating Hollande’s more centrist former prime minister Manuel Valls. Hamon now languishes in the single digits in most polls, while Mélenchon’s more radical campaign — he wants to introduce a 100% tax on incomes over €33,000 a month, reinvent or leave the European Union and leave NATO — has captured more of the electorate’s imagination.

Those polls now show the top four candidates — Macron, Le Pen, Fillon and Mélenchon — all gathered together within the margin of error, with between 19% and 25% support as voters prepare to cast ballots in the April 23 first-round vote. With Macron and Le Pen unable in the final weeks of the campaign to expand into larger coalitions, with Fillon holding steady with his core of Republican voters and with Mélenchon consolidating France’s leftist voters, no one can predict which of the four candidates will advance.

We’ll know soon enough. In the meanwhile, here is what you should expect from each of the potential six runoffs that could follow Sunday’s result.

1. The ‘firewall’ runoff: Le Pen versus Macron

As polls give Le Pen and Macron a consistent, if exceedingly narrow, lead, a Le Pen-Macron runoff is probably the most likely scenario. It’s the scenario for which most political commentators had prepared. Macron, polls suggest, would defeat Le Pen by 20 or 30 points — it’s the runoff in which Macron performs best and in which Le Pen performs worst.

Macron’s campaign hopes that voters would view this like the 2002 runoff, in which Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, faced off against center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac. Voters of all stripes, from the center-right to the far-left, held their noses and voted Chirac, who won over 82% of the runoff vote.

Despite’s Macron all-star persona on the campaign trail, he makes a perfect foil for Le Pen. A graduate of the elite École nationale d’administration, a former investment banker and Hollande’s protege, Macron represents the status quo establishment more than any other candidate in the 2017 election, notwithstanding the sudden independent streak he discovered last year. He’s also a neophyte to the top echelons of French politics (and his gaffes through the campaign show it).

If Le Pen can pull off a stronger-than-expected first-round victory and then paint Macron as a tool of the status quo, she just might motivate enough anti-establishment voters to rally around her campaign. She would need virtually all of Fillon’s conservative supporters to back her over Macron, and she’d need to convince Mélenchon’s most eurosceptic voters to back her too, while hoping the rest of the French left is so disillusioned that they stay home home for the runoff. It’s a longshot, but it’s not impossible. Moreover, given her tough line on immigration and Islam, if there’s yet another terrorist attack between now and May 7, it’s impossible to know how French voters could respond.

Bottom line: Likely Macron, but Le Pen could easily give the inexperienced and establishment Macron a tough fight.

2. The right-wing runoff: Fillon versus Le Pen

Fillon’s resilience is nothing short of amazing. Once written off as a goner, he spent half of March shooting down (quite plausible) rumors that he would be forced to drop out of the race, leaving the Republicans scrambling to find a Plan B in either Juppé or former budget minister François Baroin.

But he won the Republican nomination against Sarkozy and Juppé, in large part due to his reputation as a clean and competent official. No one much believes that Fillon is clean anymore, given Penelopegate. While his core base of voters simply don’t seem to care, it could be a crushing handicap in a runoff against Le Pen.

Throughout the first round, he has slowly come to de-emphasize Thatcher-style economic shock therapy and increasingly mimic the language of the Front national on immigration and Islam. It’s a strategy that Sarkozy successfully deployed both in 2007 and 2012 to minimize the Le Pen vote on his right flank.

It wouldn’t be the first time France has seen a runoff between two right-wing candidates (aside from 2002, the 1969 runoff pitted Gaullist Georges Pompidou against liberal Alain Poher).

But Fillon is nearly as much an ‘establishment’ choice as Macron, and he was the prime minister who raised the retirement age from 60 to 62 seven years ago and who, more than any other candidate, wants to reduce national spending and lay off government workers. He’s also a far more damaged candidate than Macron, due to the ongoing corruption investigation. Similar allegations that Le Pen, a member of the European Parliament, paid Front national staffers, though not family members, for ‘fake jobs’ haven’t hurt her nearly as much.

Polls give Fillon a lead against Le Pen — but it’s the narrowest lead of any of her potential runoff challengers, and some polls earlier this month showed that he might only defeat her by single digits. That’s certainly enough to give Le Pen’s campaign a fighting chance. That’s especially true because it would be very difficult for many leftist and even centrist voters to support Fillon, far to the right of Chirac in 2002, even against Le Pen.

Bottom line: Leans Fillon, but polls show he’s weak against Le Pen, and establishment taint and corruption scandal could stymie enthusiasm.

3. The left-wing runoff: Macron versus Mélenchon

It’s not impossible to think that Le Pen could fall from her perch as one of the top two candidates and, therefore, out of the runoff. She commanded up to 30% support for months until mid-March — now she’s fallen to just 22% to 24%. If that happens, Le Pen will face tough questions of her own within the Front national after emphasizing economic nationalism and anti-EU sentiment as strongly as her anti-immigration sentiment. A quixotic runoff loss to Macron with 40% of the vote puts her on track for a third presidential run in 2022. A first-round loss would undermine her (and her family’s) leadership.

In the meanwhile, Le Pen’s loss could be Mélenchon’s gain, who could wind up in a runoff against Macron — think of it like France holding a general election between their versions of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. French conservatives would be entirely shut out — an unthinkable result just a month ago.

In this runoff scenario, Macron would be the favorite by far, though Mélenchon holds Macron’s double-digit lead lower than either Fillon or Le Pen in a runoff scenario. Macron, however, would likely take many of the remaining Hamon and Fillon voters, and he could immediately expect to win the support of leading Socialist figures (many of whom will also be desperate to join En marche in the June parliamentary elections). Mélenchon would have to claw votes from among Le Pen’s supporters, enraged to see their candidate fall out of the top two after leading polls for more than two years.

Bottom line: Likely Macron, but Mélenchon might be able to transform the fight from left-right lines to globalist-nationalist lines.

4. The ‘establishment’ runoff: Fillon versus Macron

If you look at poll trends, however, the likeliest runoff that excludes Le Pen is a runoff between Fillon and Macron.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the Champs-Élysées attack could force some Le Pen supporters into Fillon’s arms, in spite of the corruption investigation. Fillon has increasingly co-opted the language of the anti-immigrant right, and as a former prime minister, he’s more experienced than any of the other candidates and, perhaps, a safer pair of hands.

Polls, however, show that Macron would easily defeat Fillon, and because such a runoff would feel very much like a traditional battle between the French left and right (just like 2007 or 2012), those polls are probably subject to less uncertainty than runoffs involving Le Pen or Mélenchon.

That’s somewhat ironic, because Macron has waged a campaign as an independent. But he would almost certainly become the de facto Socialist candidate (notwithstanding Hamon). Valls already supports Macron in the first round, and many other Socialist officials support him unofficially, though he didn’t bother seeking the party nomination.

But that’s a chimera — the energy unleashed by Macron’s ‘change’ movement (he’s won the support of centrist figures like François Bayrou) and the wave of anti-establishment sentiment that animates the Le Pen and Mélenchon campaigns isn’t going away, at least short of a miraculous economic boom in the next five years. The placebo of a becalmed runoff could obscure an angrier wave in the years ahead.

Bottom line: Likely Macron, but it will obscure in perhaps unhealthy ways the energy from outside the political and business establishment.

5. The ‘outsider’ runoff: Le Pen versus Mélenchon

This is the nightmare scenario that markets fear — a hard-left communist against a hard-right xenophobe.

Ironically, this scenario might unite the French left more than even a Le Pen-Macron runoff. While Mélenchon’s supporters might not care to support a neoliberal like Macron, you can be sure that Macron’s and Hamon’s supporters alike will be willing to support Mélenchon to stop the Le Pen threat. If Le Pen and Mélenchon do emerge as the final runoff candidates, it will be fascinating to see whether they will attempt (or succeed) at tacking to moderate ground.

Le Pen might soften her stand on immigration, arguing that France should take a pause only to consolidate its existing immigrant population, all through championing French workers and prioritizing employment over trade or budget restraint.

Mélenchon might easily soften his own stand by emphasizing the need to reform (not leave) the European Union, situating his anti-NATO stance as no more or less skeptical than that of Charles de Gaulle’s and highlighting a pro-growth, pro-employment platform.

The really curious aspect of this runoff scenario is wondering what French conservatives will do. Will business elites signal that Le Pen, for all her anti-immigrant attacks, is the lesser of two eurosceptic and protectionist evils? Would Fillon reluctantly endorse Le Pen? Would Sarkozy or Chirac or Juppé?

Bottom line: Leans Mélenchon, though a big push to unite business and cultural conservatives could easily swing it to Le Pen. 

6. The surprise runoff: Fillon versus Mélenchon

This runoff scenario is probably least likely — and certainly most embarrassing for French pollsters — because Fillon and Mélenchon have consistently traded places for third place in recent polls. Neither candidate has led a single poll or even emerged in second place (though the difference between first place and third place is often well within the margin of error).

This, too, would shape up as a kind of traditional fight between the French left and the French right.

Would Le Pen’s anti-establishment supporters break for the equally anti-establishment Mélenchon or for the increasingly right-wing Fillon? Would Macron’s voters tip toward Mélenchon as a change agent or to Fillon as the relative moderate? It’s impossible to say.

Bottom line: Toss up. This scenario has the least amount of polling, though Mélenchon typically leads Fillon. It’s genuinely puzzling to know who Le Pen’s supporters would support (or if they would even bother). Ditto for Macron’s supporters. A lot of uncertainty here.

2 thoughts on “The six possible runoffs that could result from France’s Sunday election”

  1. For American readers unfamiliar with French politics, the way to think of the four choices in American terms is as follows:

    Le Pen=Trump;

    Fillon=Clinton’s sleazy side, corruption and arrogance, or Chris Christie;

    Macron=Clinton’s policy side or Obama;

    Melenchon=Bernie Sander’s, only further to the left, he’s a former Trotskyite.

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