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A second round where Jean-Luc Mélenchon faces Marine Le Pen? Is this possible? How far can Jean-Luc Mélenchon go? Will Emmanuel Macron fall at the first round? Answers provided by Chloé Morin, Director at the Research Centre for public opinion of the Jean-Jaurès Foundation and Esteban Pratviel, Team leader, Strategies and Public Opinion Department of Ifop.

Much has been said and written about the electoral consequences of the individualisation of the vote in France, proceeding from an emancipation perspective in relation to the partisan, social and ideological shackles inherited from the past. The resulting uncertainty and volatility invite a degree of caution in terms of the predictions which can be made.

Indeed, the latest polls show a narrowing in the gaps between voter intentions amongst the top four candidates in the presidential election. Both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have undergone a slight downturn over the past few days whilst the momentum began to shift towards Jean-Luc Mélenchon; moving him closer onto the heels or even alongside François Fillon in the polls, who himself has gained a little ground. It would appear in light of the above context that there is an increasing probability, well established amongst commentators, that the second round will include Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, and that may even lead to the combined qualification of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen.

From this weekend until election day the “Unsubmissive France” candidate and the Republican Party shall remain the focus of much of the attention for as long as they remain separated by more than one and a half points in the voter intention polls. However, we have identified a number of indicators that require additional context; the current weaknesses within Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy is in some respect partly responsible for the momentum shift in favour of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, although the shift is quite real, the shift is less certain or rigid and it is likely to be difficult for Mélenchon to solidify this shift into actual votes in the ballot boxes. This is particularly the case when you compare the aforementioned shift to the albeit slightly more modest shift towards François Fillon. Therefore, there is a possibility of a second-round confrontation between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen if the voter base for the Forward! (En Marche!) candidate collapses. This seems unlikely, however, given that he has been one of the favourites during this presidential election.

The strengths of Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy through the threat of “tactical voting”

For the first time in the Fifth Republic, the Socialist Party seems to have been seized upon by the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon as part of what can be described as a “tactical vote” for the left. Since he moved beyond Benoît Hamon in the voter intention polls, the ‘Unsubmissive France’ candidate is well positioned to respond to the candidate who won the Belle Alliance Populaire primary with an argument that they should look to withdraw in favour of the best placed candidate progressing to the second round. However, can all the voters on the left be relied upon to come together to consolidate the momentum shift in the days leading up to the election?

To consider this, we must first assess the ideological divide that currently exists between the centre-left voters – who have typically supported government action (public policy) and who are principally intending to vote for Emmanuel Macron – and voters on the Left Front or those who are positioned politically to the left of the Socialist Party (PS). The various twists and turns during the last five years have gradually distanced the latter from the conventional social democratic line. This divide seems increasingly difficult to reconcile under the banner of an ‘Unsubmissive France’ candidacy – it remains unlikely that the people who represented more than 40% of the voter base of François Hollande in 2012 and the socialists who deemed Benoît Hamon as ‘too left’ in the aftermath of the primary who themselves today support Emmanuel Macron, should resolve tomorrow to vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the possibility that a member of the “real left” will qualify for the second round.

Secondly, let us recall that the “tactical vote” has been exerted for months already to candidates other than the Socialist candidate (as was also the case for François Hollande in 2012). These votes have instead been in support of the Forward! (En Marche!) candidate, who remains, despite the last few days, firmly installed amongst the top two to proceed to the next round. For this reason it is necessary to measure the extent to which Emmanuel Macron may still call upon such a “tactical vote” from those reserves on the left and if he can proceed to consolidate his position as “the only progressive candidate capable of defeating the right and the National Front.” An analysis of the detailed results of the Ifop-Fiducial poll for Paris Match, CNews and Sud Radio has revealed an unprecedented difference between the predictions and those who hope for Emmanuel Macron to be victorious in this presidential election. Focusing on the period from 21 to 31 March 2017, the Forward! (En Marche!) candidate is clearly dominating across numerous forecasts (41% of those questioned), whilst winning the election remains the ultimate wish for some of the people questioned, but at a considerably lower volume (21% of those questioned, a level that has been relatively stable for the last three weeks). This is an unprecedented difference – the hopes and predictions have previously been relatively close in the case of the duel between Sarkozy-Hollande in 2012 – but this seems to be the result of a lack of enthusiasm or resignation (acceptance of their fate) amongst the voters, which seems to have led them to use strategic votes and not to vote in line with their true convictions. It was also influenced, according to Ipsos by the “default” vote for the candidate perceived to receive the greatest number of votes (52%).

Against this backdrop of indecision, interest in this election campaign has been somewhat thwarted by the perceived poor quality of candidates, alongside voter participation that is far behind the level of engagement seen in 2012 and a proportion of the left that has already internalised and prepared to face the prospect of defeat this election. Consequently, the discrepancy which exists between voter predictions and hopes merely reflects the attitude of voters are attempting to vote strategically and are more willing than normal to position themselves to benefit a broader tactical advantage.

A large proportion of voters on the left appear to have taken into account both the presence of Marine Le Pen in the second round and the likelihood that they may win said round (remembering the failure of the National Front in the regional and district elections of 2015) into their voting decisions. It is not clear at this time whether or not Jean-Luc Mélenchon as a candidate who is not broadly accepted across the entire left is able to convince the majority of the progressive voters that he has the required ability to form a more favourable alternative than the Forward! (En Marche!) candidate. As a result, Emmanuel Macron has imposed himself upon the voter as the strongest candidate in this situation.

However, a detailed analysis of Ifop’s data highlights that, contrary to popular belief, Emmanuel Macron is still far from having fully reaped the benefits of this”tactical vote” from the left. Currently only 10% of his voters would be in favour of another candidate winning the election which equates to approximately 2.5 points in terms of voter intention. Alongside this, there are still potential ‘reserve’ voters who may support Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon, amongst left-wing voters who are convinced that Emmanuel Macron will progress through to the second round – thus maintaining the possibility of a potential second round between François Fillon and Marine Le Pen – that they would vote for with their “heart.” If this happens, Emmanuel Macron could gain 30% and 38% respectively of the supporters from “Unsubmissive France” and the Socialist Party candidates who would predict he may win but not hope that he does so. This reservoir of votes would then comprise of women, people aged 35-49 and administrative professionals; and those who consider themselves to be largely middle class.

If Emmanuel Macron sets himself the goal of utilising the threat of a second round between François Fillon and Marine Le Pen during the final leg of his election campaign, he could well have sufficient reserves to put Jean-Luc Mélenchon behind him.

The greater manoeuvrability of François Fillon compared to Jean-Luc Mélenchon

It should be noted at this juncture that there are other elements one can consider which allow us to relativise and contextualise the current successes being enjoyed by the “Submissive France” candidate. His personality is one such element; today it can be considered to be an asset, yet to many voters it is one of his weaknesses. At the same time, he also possesses favourable qualities; he is a learned individual, a great orator, honest, sincere and passionate, but also at times hot-tempered and easily swept up in the moment without any hope of retracting what he has done. Other commentators are quick to highlight his recent “metamorphosis,” – that the candidate is now “wise”. But in terms of prevailing public opinion sadly the candidate’s recent public failings will not fade quickly from history or their memory. Negative memories often remain dormant and the slightest error by Jean-Luc Mélenchon – an outburst, a symbolic act could so easily remind the voters at this crucial time of his less popular character traits – and bring them to the forefront of the campaign once more. According to a study conducted by Ifop on behalf of Le Journal du Dimanche between 31 March and 1 April he is also burdened by the public image of him; 54% of those interviewed felt he lacks the stature required to be president and cannot imagine that he will reach the Élysée in May.

Furthermore, his electoral program is considered by many to be unrealistic, particularly in relation to issues concerning the deficit. There is also uncertainty amongst voters at this stage who repeatedly tell us day after day that they do not have enough information on the respective programs of each candidate regarding the allocation of funds to the venture that includes the European plan proposed by the “Unsubmissive France” candidate. The people of France are also divided on their ability to reform the country (with 49% of the public believing that they can) which is crucial at this time as the desire for reform has never been so evident amongst public opinion.

It is partly for the reasons outlined above that the voters are now faced with the administrative difficulties which have emerged during François Hollande’s five-year term with the difficulties only being referred to sparingly by those positioned to the left of the government majority, during the municipal and European elections in 2014 or during the departmental and regional elections in 2015. The purported voter reserve on the “radical left” seems thus far insufficient to ensure that this political camp progresses through to the second round of the presidential election. This is particularly the case in an election where voter participation is likely to be higher than during the intervening voting rounds. This is an issue which the Communist Party itself have continued to struggle against during the Fifth Republic, most notably during the early stages.

Whilst initially leading the polls on the right immediately after the December primary organised by the Republican Party (Les Républicains) and even following Benoît Hamon’s victory in the primary organised by the Socialist Party, François Fillon saw his momentum cut by the announcement of legal action against him which brought into his integrity question. Such matters have not yet ruled him out of the election however, since his voter base has remained stable since the beginning of February despite the succession of revelations and allegations. During the last few days, the Republican Party (Les Républicains) candidate has even seen his polling increase slightly (by 1 to 2 points on average). Voter intention amongst those polled is currently between 18.5% and 20% which provides him with a solid foundation – with voter certainty regarding the election being at least ten points higher than those who support Jean-Luc Mélenchon – arguably a result produced thanks to his efficient use of the campaign resources available to him.

Polls appear to suggest that François Fillon may also benefit from having greater margin for manoeuvrability which is potentially more important to him than Jean-Luc Mélenchon. According to the BVA, around 25% of uncertain or hesitant voters consider themselves likely to vote for Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen; declaring that they may ultimately vote for them in the first round of the presidential election whilst more than a third of former Nicolas Sarkozy voters from 2012 have taken refuge and decided to abstain or declined to confirm their intent. As election day looms on the horizon, we could yet see these voters move to support the Republican Party (Les Républicains) candidate, following the previous example of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 when he secured votes from the “disgruntled right” late in the election race. The results of the most recent intermediate elections seem to add further weight to this analysis. Although the debate has been somewhat diluted by other issues – the controversial victory of Jean-François Copé in his quest for the UMP presidency, the rejection by the Constitutional Council of the financial accounts of Nicolas Sarkozy for the 2012 re-election campaign and the Bygmalion affair raising concerns over the probity of several officials – the Republican right has always enjoyed support from a solid voter base which represents at least 25% of their total voters. At present François Fillon is unable to rely on such a voter base and he must take steps to address these voters directly in the final stages of the election as a member of the National Assembly for Paris.

Whilst his positioning and political offering also ensures an element of seduction to his attributes. He continues to efficiently utilise the only campaign resources available to him in an attempt to secure more votes: the right-wing desire to complete a clean break from the policies pursued by François Hollande alongside an “uninhibited” right-wing policy; in particular, his beliefs and policies regarding reducing public expenditure and ending the 35 hour week. The argument of a “black room” can be considered to be fairly anecdotal in the strategy overall; but it allows for the reintroduction of the concept of a “worthy opponent;”

Francois Hollande has become the figurehead for a campaign which he had previously distanced himself from – like a red rag waving in front of the raging right ‘bull’ that appears to hate him. Moreover, the idea of a conspiracy can, even if the voters and potential supporters of Fillon do not believe in the conspiracy itself, provide a useful excuse, and as a result allow said voters to shoulder their voting decision unashamedly – as he is reduced to the same level as François Fillon with a tarnished image as well as the other candidates. Furthermore, it should be noted that there is a possibility that the right-wing candidate may face humiliation if he is relegated to fourth place behind the far-left candidate whose vision is in stark contrast to the blood and tears rhetoric espoused by Fillon which could create a situation where there are a certain number of ‘sleeping voters’ who do not awaken to cast a vote.

In light of the data compiled here, we can confirm that the momentum which carries Jean-Luc Mélenchon is at this stage essentially at the expense of Benoît Hamon (and to a lesser extent Emmanuel Macron), however this is unlikely to be enough to overtake François Fillon. Arguably, without any doubt in order for there to be the possibility of a victory on the left the Social Democrats will need to overcome their ideological reticence; this will in turn ensure that any tactical vote for the left can truly benefit them. If the present trend to support Jean-Luc Mélenchon at the expense of Emmanuel Macron can be substantiated and Mélenchon continues to the second round to oppose François Fillon and Marine Le Pen, it will probably result in reactionary tactical voting in favour of the Forward! (En Marche!) candidate which will naturally have a limit.

The current momentum which supports Jean-Luc Mélenchon exists due to the confluence of the momentum that initially propelled Benoît Hamon through the primary and the increased belief that there is a need for radicalism and political renewal; it is worth noting the same momentum provides support to Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Nevertheless, it is a powerful wind, one which is not new to politics and has indeed been witnessed in previous elections. This is however, the first time in recent history that the two main political parties have failed to capitalise on the changing wind (neither Benoît Hamon or François Fillon have anything akin to the Sarkozyist ‘rupture’ policy or François Hollande’s – “Change is now”). The only way he could possibly pose a viable risk to the other three candidates in the race to victory in the time remaining would be if his policies do enough to secure him the opportunity to progress to the second round in such a way that deflates the entire left-wing ‘tactical vote’ which presently supports Emmanuel Macron. The points (approximately 2.5 according to our calculations) that Emmanuel Macron would lose as a result would not however be sufficient to relegate him to third position. However, the difference to third is such that whether it is Jean-Luc Mélenchon or François Fillon the result would still create intense uncertainty regarding who obtained the final places in the first round.

Whilst one cannot completely disregard François Fillon’s prospects of reaching the second round it would appear in any event that Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s chances of achieving the same goal are the less likely of the two candidates based on current trends. Nevertheless, the radicalisation strategy which he implemented during his campaign has allowed him to at least take steps towards this goal by increasing the uncertainty which surrounds the outcome of a second round – that is if the latter opposes Marine Le Pen in the second round.

Photo: Guillaume Destombes / Shutterstock.com