France: Macron’s Not There Yet

The polls continue to give Emmanuel Macron a 20 percentage point lead over Marine Le Pen, but we believe, as we argued last week, that the market has priced out too much political risk and may be a little complacent about the outcome in France. There’s nothing in our signals to indicate Le Pen will win; the situation remains as we described it late last week, with Macron dominating the digital conversation once YouTube is included but Le Pen edging the contest if Wikipedia and Twitter, which have historically provided the signals most accurately reflective of final electoral outcomes, are the sole signal inputs. That divergence in digital momentum does not send a clear signal for a Le Pen victory, but it does suggest the second round vote could end up being closer than polls suggest. Even if Macron does win, a narrower-than-expected result could reduce the force of his mandate and weigh on his already-questionable ability to legislate a policy agenda.

Two developments on Friday offered further support for the view that the result will be closer than expected. First, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who gained almost 20% of the first round vote (or around 7 million votes), definitively refused to endorse Macron or call on his supporters to join the “Republican front” to block Le Pen’s path to power, describing the second round as an unacceptable choice between “the extreme right” (Le Pen) and “extreme finance” (Macron). Mélenchon’s announcement increases the possibility that many of his supporters will abstain in the second round. Turnout, which has generally hovered around 80% in the second round of most recent French presidential elections, could plummet to below 75%. This all benefits Le Pen and makes the contest potentially much closer than it would be with a more engaged (and participatory) electorate.

In the meantime, Le Pen is doing her best to woo Mélenchon supporters and encourage them to cast a vote in her favor on Sunday. Macron, she told them in a special video appeal on Friday, “does not represent change; he is continuity.” No recent video on Le Pen’s YouTube channel has been viewed more, which suggests that someone is paying attention; whether the message will work, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess.

The second big development favoring Le Pen is the endorsement of her candidacy by nationalist first round rival Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. Dupont-Aignan got loss than 5% of the first round vote but his endorsement is a landmark in the Front National’s historic march toward mainstream political acceptability. It’s also given Le Pen a useful pretext to distance herself from her unpopular campaign promise to ditch the euro and lead France out of the EU; now she’s doing everything to keep the timetable loose and the policy vague.

However, not everything is breaking the challenger’s way. Le Pen resigned from the leadership of the FN early last week, a symbolic gesture that recognized the historical baggage of the party’s racist and anti-semitic past. But that past has come back to haunt her in recent days. First Le Pen’s replacement as FN leader had to resign after claims emerged that he had denied the Holocaust. Then Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, who disputed and lost the second round of the 2002 election, offered up some homophobic analysis of the funeral of the officer slain in the recent Champs-Elysées attack that was greeted with predictable distaste. These missteps have been a major driver of the overall digital conversation about the election in recent days. They also make Le Pen’s job in the final week — to convince the electorate that she can govern for all of France, not just its extreme right rump — even harder. It may be another presidential cycle before the young and ostensibly mainstream FN is able to fully shed the stain of the party’s past.

With the endorsements game settled, the key event to watch this week is Wednesday night’s debate. The encounter could prove a banana skin for Macron, who appeared flustered and defensive in the campaign’s previous two debates — and who has already lost the first big TV head-to-head of the entre-deux-tours, last week’s impromptu Battle of Whirlpool. Expect Le Pen to go on the attack as she attempts to advance her argument that a vote for Macron will do nothing but guarantee more of the same failed policies of the Hollande presidency. ⏪