I find myself reading a lot more European news these days as we keep an eye on the final stretch of the French elections. To listen to many of the experts over there the race is pretty much over. The Guardian was out yesterday with a rather caustic headline, proclaiming that “Fear of neofascism keeps Emmanuel Macron ahead of Marine Le Pen.” They go on to interview some younger voters who describe their dissatisfaction with the choices offered, characterizing it as a choice between the unpalatable and the unacceptable. In this case the “unpalatable” is Emmanuel Macron and the “unacceptable” is former National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
So this thing’s all over but the shouting, right? Some aren’t so sure, including National Review’s Jim Geraghty. In today’s issue of the Morning Jolt he asks, why is everyone so certain about this weekend’s French election? Jim first covers the conventional wisdom among political analysts on both sides of the pond. Nobody much likes Macron, but he’s from the traditional socialist stock and is closer to what French voters know and have been comfortable with for a long time. Le Pen, on the other hand, is radical. So she’s going to lose bigly, right?
Well, maybe. But we saw how voters in the United Kingdom and United States responded when the political, cultural, and media elites declared there was only one socially-acceptable option in a big, consequential election. People hate being told that they don’t have a choice.
The French are not happy with the status quo. Incumbent president François Hollande was so unpopular he chose to not run for reelection; the nominee of his party, the Socialists, got less than 7 percent in a five-way race. Emmanuel Macron is technically an outsider and a new figure in French politics, a sort of center-left technocrat, but… he’s formerly a member of the Socialist party, an investment banker (with Rothschild & Cie Banque – think that name will stir the conspiracy theorists?) and served in a senior role on Hollande’s staff from 2012 to 2014.
A longtime political figure, generally supportive of globalization and welcomed by “the Davos crowd” with close ties to the incumbent administration and the country’s financial elites, running during a time of great dissatisfaction with the status quo? While the national media declares the main opponent racist, xenophobic, and a relic of the country’s ugly past?
Does anybody else feel like we just saw this movie?
I can see what Jim’s saying. There are some obvious parallels between the stories being reported in France right now and both the Brexit vote and the Trump vs Clinton showdown in November. But before getting too carried away it’s worth looking at the margins we’re dealing with here.
The Daily Express chooses to depict the latest round of numbers as a case of Macron “plummeting in the polls.” It’s true that he experienced a seven point slip in a single week which should be troubling for any candidate, but he still landed at the same figure being reported in the headline of the Irish Times. It’s currently a 61-39 race with only five days to go.
That’s a sobering figure if you happen to be a fan of Le Pen. According to the established polling that’s a more than twenty point race. Now, before you begin complaining too loudly, I’m aware of the recent polling failures which took place elsewhere and you can’t discount that. Here in the United States pollsters tied themselves to a likely voter model which had served them well for several cycles without realizing that it was actually a somewhat unlikely voter model that was going to show up. But while they got it wrong, they were primarily off target in a handful of key areas and they didn’t miss by all that much. Places where Hillary was predicted to win narrowly, Trump won narrowly in the other direction. There was rarely a region where they missed in double digits. The Brexit vote was similarly predicted to be a close vote in favor of remain and it wound up being an even closer vote to leave.
Nothing is impossible these days, but Harris (the polling company doing the final rounds in France) would have to be missing literally one fifth of the turnout to get this one entirely wrong. Given all the factors Jim discusses above, I can definitely see them being off, but it just feels as if a 22 point lead for Macron may turn out to be only a ten point lead on Sunday. I’m fully prepared to be wrong here, but if Le Pen wins this thing it’s really going to be either a miracle of populist uprising or a sign that we need to abandon the science of polling entirely.