French election — A Lepen Victory: Potentially Ruinous for Mauritius: A Risk Assessment

For us in Mauritius the boon coming from a Macron election is that it will avoid the cataclysmic and potentially ruinous effects of France pulling out of the European Union and the euro zone

The first round of elections in France has finally produced the most expected results although there was an almost Hitchcockian suspense in the end as the ratings of at least three of the four most popular candidates came very close to each other in the final days of the campaign for the first round. That Jean-Luc Mélenchon could emerge as one of the two final contestants became a distinct possibility as his ratings in the polls surged dramatically in the final days of the campaign. At that point the nightmare scenario was the likelihood of a match between Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen which for many observers would have created the best possible scenario for the latter. At the end of the day though, it was the most predictable outcome which materialized and for once the pollsters could breathe a sigh of relief.

After the Brexit referendum and the triumph of Donald Trump in the US, predicting the outcome of popular consultations has turned out to be a daredevils’ exercise. So much so that even in the face of what looks like an inevitable victory for Emmanuel Macron against Le Pen in the next round of elections in fifteen days, the need for caution cannot be ignored. The French two-round majoritarian system of election has been so designed as to allow those who have voted for an unsuccessful candidate in the first round to express their preference between the two “surviving” candidates for the presidency.

The single focus for both Macron and Le Pen in the remaining campaign is therefore to secure the largest number of vote transfers from the pool of voters who did not vote for them in the first round. On the face of it and in light of the first declarations of the likes of defeated candidates like Francois Fillon and Benoit Hamon (Mélenchon is still reluctant to back any of the two candidates), it would seem that Macron should come out a winner in this sort of electoral arithmetic. As even our recent experience in Mauritius has demonstrated though, arithmetic and electoral behaviour can often prove to be difficult to reconcile.

The last time that a Front National (FN) candidate made it to the second round was in 2002 when Jean Marie Le Pen, founder of the party, beat the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in a jaw dropping surprise result. In those days, the anti-FN coalition seemed like the natural thing to happen, and voters for all parties rallied “en masse” behind Republican Jacques Chirac who was subsequently elected with about 82% of the votes.

This time around with Marine having succeeded his father Jean Marie Le Pen and carried out a systematic exercise of “dediabolisation” of the FN, to the great dismay of the latter one may add, the worrying fact is that the formation of the anti-FN grand coalition does not seem as “natural” as it had been then. Mélenchon, for example, who obtained nearly 20% of votes, is up to now unwilling to ask his supporters to vote against Le Pen, let alone for Macron. Actually the first polls carried out just after the results of the first round were known, indicate that Le Pen had the support of nearly 40% of voters – compare this to the 18% obtained by her father 15 years ago, a figure which only marginally improved between the first and second rounds.

One lesson that can be learned from French presidential elections over nearly half a century is that the winner of the first round is far from assured of winning the second round. In 1974, with 43% of votes, Francois Mitterrand came well ahead of his opponent Valery Giscard d’Estaing who obtained 32% of the votes in the first round. Giscard d’Estaing went on to win the presidential elections even if it was by only the smallest of margins (50.8%). In 1981, there was a reversal when Giscard d’Estaing won the first round only to be beaten in the second one by the same Mitterrand.

The critical factor in these elections based on the two-round majoritarian system, as we have said earlier, is all about securing the largest transfer of votes from the candidates who have been eliminated in the first round. Under normal circumstances, given the endorsements which Macron has received from major political figures from both the traditional left and right (Hamon, Fillon, Hollande and others), he should benefit from a favourable transfer of votes and win a handsome victory at the next round on May 7.

The only caveat is that nothing has been “normal” in these elections up to now. To begin with, the success of Macron who never contested any elections up to now and was totally unknown before he was appointed by President Hollande as Secretary to the Elysée before becoming the Minister of Finance in 2015. His party “En Marche” was launched only one year ago.

Similarly exceptional has been the defeat of the two parties (Les Republicains under various avatars over the years, and the Parti Socialiste) which together with the French Communist Party until recently, have dominated electoral politics all through the Fifth Republic. The historic high level of votes obtained by the far-right FN in the first round and the even more stupendous 40% of “intentions de votes” indicated by the most recent polls at the start of the campaign between the two rounds are ominous warnings which must be taken seriously by the opponents of the Front National.

Finally one simply cannot ignore the fact that western democracies are presently fraught with multiple and systemic crises characterized by the loss of credibility of the traditional economic and political elites. Hyper globalization, the “financiarisation” of the global economy and the rising inequality and lack of consideration for the weaker sections of the community have dampened the trust of large sections of the population in the system. These conditions have created a hotbed for all sorts of populism which feed on the generalization of despair.

Having said the above though, one can still reasonably hope that Emmanuel Macron will finally gather the majority of votes in the next round and be elected President of the French Republic. For us in Mauritius the boon coming from a Macron election is that it will avoid the cataclysmic and potentially ruinous effects of France pulling out of the European Union and the euro zone in case of a Le Pen victory.

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