After Fillon: where does the field stand?

François Fillon’s resounding victory in the conservative primary is now behind us. Having candidates makes polling easier, and the latest poll published just yesterday already gives us some ideas of where the electorate currently stands. Another earlier poll, published on Sunday night and taken during the week before the election, shares the same conclusions.

François Fillon dominates the first round and wins the second, against Marine Le Pen, with a clear majority. However, most striking to the eye were the high scores of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (12%, extreme left) and Emmanuel Macron (13/15%, “neither left nor right”) in the first round, scoring above President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls, irrespective of whom would run (both between 7 and 9%).

Of course, the French pollsters, reeling from their inability to model the Fillon surprise in the first round of the primaries and the misfortunes of their colleagues in the UK and the US, will tell you that this is merely a temporary picture. Let’s try to provide some clarity to this image.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the leader of the French extreme-left, a firebrand populist, breakaway from the Socialist Party, who received just recently the support of the Communist Party and paints himself as the last representative of the blue collar workers. Amid his virulent speeches denouncing the excesses of capitalism, Mélenchon has consistently been able to capture a part of the anti-system electorate that still perceives the National Front as a danger. His planned share of votes, added to the 22/23% of the National Front, highlights the extent to which the defiance of the French electorate goes beyond the Le Pen vote. His larger share of vote than the Socialists’ is a powerful symbol for a party that has lost almost all of its traditional electoral base.

Emmanuel Macron is the other candidate who has the potential to take votes away from the Socialist candidate. The governmental renegade, who stepped down from his position of Minister of the Economy in the summer, has been able to capture France’s intellectual class with his self-avowed “above parties” position and desire to modernize the country without the Thatcherian, Fillon edge. A good part of traditional Socialist voters — the intellectual class in big cities and a fair share of 18–30 yo — may be tempted to choose Macron as protest vote in the first round in order to express their disappointment with the Socialist government, without having to support a Fillon with whom they have few intellectual affinities. The inevitability of voting for Fillon in a second round, for Mélénchon and especially Macron voters, is integrated and will be one of the keys in Fillon securing an incontestable victory.

An important legal point remains to be broached. In order to get on the ballot, any presidential candidate has to collect 500 signatures from “elected officials” (MPs, senators, mayors, representatives of regions). French tradition dictates that smaller candidates who reach a certain threshold of votes in pre-electoral polls are “handed” signatures by parties who control a larger share of these elected officials.

Both Le Pens, father and daughter, campaigned for the identity of these officials to be made anonymous in order to make their task easier (Marine Le Pen claims she barely scraped by the 500 signatures in 2012); by now, though, the feeling of shame of supporting Le Pen has all but disappeared and gains in territorial assemblies ensure that she will easily qualify.

Mélenchon will also find his signatures, but the question remains open for Macron, who is running outside of the party system (and the Socialist primaries). Socialist representatives have been given firm orders not to support the castaway, which they are free to respect or not. Macron is only supported by a handful of powerful Socialists, among which the mayor of Lyon, Gérard Collomb, who has been tasked with collecting these signatures. Getting to 500 may prove Macron’s most difficult task, unless the already weak unity of the Socialist Party crumbles further — or unless the party decides its electoral future is safer in the hands of Macron and unofficially anoints him as the main opposition leader for the five years to come.

The electoral field therefore remains fluid, and polls should therefore be taken with an even bigger grain of salt than usual. A game changer could be when Macron presents his program: a warm reception could move things in the right direction towards getting him on the ballot, skepticism could disqualify him and create a pendulum towards the Socialist candidate or favor a candidacy of François Bayrou, the face of centrist politics in France, who is still mulling a run.

Martin M