Explainer: How is the French president chosen and who’s expected to win

By Dr Adrian Beaumont
Polls analyst

The French Presidential election will be held in two rounds.

All candidates compete in the first round this Sunday 23 April, and the top two vote winners qualify for the second round on Sunday 7 May.  Polls close at 2am Monday Australian Eastern Standard Time in small towns, and at 4am in the cities.

The first official results are expected at 4am AEST (8pm Paris time). Usually it is clear by this time which two candidates will progress to the second round of voting, but things may be different this year due to the closeness of the race and the fact that there are an unusually large number of candidates.

The current French Socialist President, Francois Hollande, is widely despised.  His approval rating has hovered between 20 and 30% for much of his five year term, with temporary spikes following two terrorist attacks.  In late 2016, Hollande’s approval rating dropped to just 4% in one poll, and he did not seek re-election.

Given Hollande’s dire ratings, the conservative candidate, Francois Fillon, should have been the clear favourite to win.  However, allegations have been made that he used government money to give his wife and children fake jobs, and Fillon is currently under formal investigation over these allegations, the closest French equivalent to being charged.  As a result, Fillon dropped from nearly 30% in first round polls to about 18%.

Fillon’s party, Les Republicains, would have liked to replace him, but were unable to legally do so without Fillon voluntarily withdrawing, as he had won the party’s US style November 2016 primary.  That primary was held months before the allegations of misdemeanours were publicised.

The main beneficiary of Fillon’s troubles has been the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron.  Macron was formerly the economy minister in the Socialist government, where he implemented pro-business reforms.  Macron is the only one of the top four candidates who is explicitly pro-Europe and anti-Russia.

According to current polls, the top four candidates are the centrist Macron on 24%, the far right Marine Le Pen on 23%, the conservative Fillon on 20% and hard left Jean-Luc Mélenchon on 19%.  After strong debate performances, Melenchon has surged from 10% to 19% in the last few weeks, mainly at the expense of the Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, who has fallen into single figures.

Many on the French left have become frustrated with the Socialist government’s pro-business agenda, and are attracted to Mélenchon.  Mélenchon advocates a 90% tax on the part of any income above 400,000 Euros a year (about $AU 560,000).

The differences between one poll and another in the first round are very low, and this implies that the French polls are being "herded".  Herding happens when pollsters suppress their raw data to conform to a trend.  If the trend is right, herding is not a problem, but sometimes the trend pollsters conform to is wrong.  If there is a major polling miss next Sunday, it will likely be due to herding.

The top four candidates are close in the polls, but only two will advance to the 7 May runoff.  If Macron advances, hypothetical runoff polling shows him defeating any of the other three potential challengers by at least a 58-42 margin; his closest polls are against Mélenchon.

If Macron fails to advance, the runoff could be unpredictable, as there would be two candidates who would be widely disliked.  According to current polling, Le Pen’s best chance of winning is if her runoff opponent is Fillon, as many on the left would abstain rather than choose from two right wing candidates.  Even with this match-up, Fillon leads by at least 55-45 in recent polls.

If Mélenchon and either Fillon or Le Pen made the runoff, current polls give Mélenchon 58-42 leads against either right wing opponent.

Banner image: the Eiffel Tower. Credit: Wiki


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