Time to look ahead to 2022
No incumbent French president has won re-election since the terms were reduced from seven years to five. Granted, there are not many examples – two – on which to base what might appear to be if not a rule of thumb then certainly a trend. But nor is the Élysée exactly a secure base from which to a presidential campaign (compare here with the American presidency).
So why is Emmanuel Macron such short odds to retain office next year? On Betfair, he’s trading at 1.8 to 1.9, while some bookies offer no better than a very stingy 8/15. His approval ratings vary considerably depending on which pollster is asking the question and indeed, what the question is, but apart from Harris, which consistently produces much better figures, all in the last three months have been in the -14 to -32 range: not catastrophic but hardly bestriding the political stage with imperious dominance either.
In truth, the reason he’s rated so strongly is because there isn’t really anyone else. Yet.
Actually, that’s not true. There is a very clear someone else, leader of Rassemblement National (formerly Front National), Marine Le Pen. The Harris poll this week had her within margin of error of Macron in a direct head-to-head, 52-48, as well as winning the first round. That’s her strongest performance in any poll for 2022 but not by much: there have only been seven head-to-head polls between the two since 2017 but Le Pen has scored over 40% in all of them.
Can we really believe those figures though? Certainly, the FN has a habit of underperforming their opinion polling. In 2017, she came in only a little under her first round average but around 4% worse than the polling in the second round. They did similarly badly in the parliamentary elections a few weeks later, polling in the high teens only to then end up with less than 14% in the first round and a dismal eight seats. On the other hand, pollsters do learn from mistakes.
Perhaps the more pertinent lesson from 2017 was that Le Pen polled even more strongly against the then-incumbent president, François Hollande, frequently scoring leads prior to Hollande’s withdrawal but still went on to a heavy, 32-point defeat. A lot can change between now and April 2022.
But that brings us back to the original point, that Macron seems overly strong in the betting markets when so much can change. In particular, not only do we not yet know who the candidates for the Socialists or LR will be, we don’t know whether there’ll be any shake-up of the party system either. At this point prior to the 2017 election, Macron was still a member of the Socialist government – he would not launch En Marche until April 2016 and wouldn’t leave the Valls government until August.
Could the French left shake the election up? We shouldn’t rule it out, although its natural state of affairs is at war with itself and this is even more the case now with the once-dominant PS still on the floor after its shattering defeats in 2017 – its candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished fifth with just 6.4% (and then left the party); two months later, it lost almost 90% of its seats in parliament to fall from an absolute majority to just 30 MPs. Four years ago, it was instead Jean-Luc Mélenchon who ended up as the left’s standard-bearer, winning 19.6% – less than 2% off Le Pen and less than 5% from topping the poll. Mélenchon is standing again and though he’s only polling just into double figures – less than half that of Macron or Le Pen – that’s around where he was in March 2017 too. Ultimately though, whether Mélenchon or the PS candidate (whoever it turns out to be), or someone else, those left-of-centre votes have to go somewhere.
Then there’s the centre-right, also divided. The assumption should still be that Les Républicains will put a candidate forward but quite who is a very open question. Unlike 2017, there’s no national primary and consequently, no opinion polling. Two of the most speculated-about candidates, Xavier Bertrand and Valérie Pécresse are no longer even members of LR – though polls which treat them as such still score them in the mid- to high-teens: certainly within striking distance of Macron and Le Pen.
The question is whether someone can do to Macron what he did to the jaded field of 2017. Can someone shake up the election and inspire the electorate? Macron himself seems unlikely to be able to do so but against that, for all his elitist airs, he’s a reliable ‘Not’ candidate. People can vote for him because he’s not Le Pen, he’s not Mélenchon, he’s not a jaded retread or an extremist or many other things that people vote against. But there’s not a lot to vote for – and if someone else can capture even a reasonable share of that Not vote, Macron would be in trouble.
So where does that leave us? As things stand, Macron probably beats Le Pen. Probably. But it’s not certain and in any case, it’s not even certain that Macron reaches the second round, though Le Pen’s support is firm enough that she should. If she does, she probably loses to the centre-right too, though she a match-up against Mélenchon could be close.
All of which suggests that there’s much too much uncertainty to imply that anyone ought to be rated as a 55-65% chance at this stage; Macron looks a clear lay. I’m not keen on the 9/2 for Le Pen either, which are realistic rather than generous, given the high ‘anti’ vote against her. There might be more value in Anne Hidalgo (25/1), Xavier Bertrand (20/1) or Jean-Luc Mélenchon (22/1) – though do your own research here as the nominations for both centre-left and -right could be complex and might well end up a mess. Again.