A lot of people in the US, who often make the comparison with Brexit and Trump’s election, seem convinced that Le Pen can win the second round of the French presidential election against Macron in two weeks, but she really can’t and those comparisons are extremely misleading. According to the official results of the first round, Macron got 24.01% of the vote, while Le Pen only got 21.30%. Just behind them, Fillon got 20.01% for the traditional right-wing party, while Mélenchon got 19.58% for the anti-liberal left. Hamon, the socialist party’s candidate, only got 6.36% of the vote. Dupont-Aignan, a right-wing candidate ideologically somewhere between Fillon and Le Pen, got 4.70% of the vote. First of all, it’s worth noting that, if you just look at their own scores, Macron already has a 2.71% lead on Le Pen. This is already bad news for her, but what makes it worse is that he has a lot more reserves than her, as I will now explain.
Some people think that Le Pen could get the vote of many of the people who voted for Mélenchon in the first round, because they don’t like Macron’s liberal economic policies, but this is nonsense. Of course, some of the people who voted for Mélenchon in the first round will vote for Le Pen in the second one, but far more of them will vote for Macron even though they hate him to stop the National Front, while the rest just won’t vote. Because Le Pen and Mélenchon have similar positions on economic policy, many assume that a lot of people who vote for one could also vote for the other, but that is a myth. The reality is that, when you look at polls, the electorate of Le Pen and that of Mélenchon are very different. For instance, more than 22% of Mélenchon’s voters have at least two years of college education and more than 20% have at least three, whereas for Le Pen the figures are respectively 15% and 9%. Mélenchon’s voters are also more urban, whereas Le Pen draws a lot of support from rural areas.
Some pollsters also asked people who said they wanted to vote for Mélenchon but could still change their mind who they would vote for if not him. Only 11% of them said Le Pen was their second choice, while 30% said Macron and 32% said Hamon. The rest mostly said they would vote for one of the far-left candidates and 8% didn’t say anything. Of course, people who were certain to vote for Mélenchon could be different from those who said they could still change their mind, but if anything they are probably more ideologically committed to the left and therefore even less likely to vote for Le Pen. You have to understand that, for most people on the left in France, the National Front is a fascist party they want nothing to do with. (This is nonsense invented by the socialist party in the 1980’s to divide the right-wing vote, but that’s a story for another time. What matters is that most people on the left still believe it.) So Le Pen won’t get many votes from Mélenchon’s voters, whereas Macron will get a lot of them.
In the case of Fillon’s voters, the situation is a bit different, but Macron will still get more of their votes than Le Pen. According to the same poll I used above, which is the most reliable because it has a very large sample (which is particularly important when you’re looking at subpopulations), only 21% of those who said they wanted to vote for Fillon but could still change their mind said Le Pen would be their second choice, while 53% said Macron was. In this case, people who were sure of their choice are probably more likely to vote for Le Pen, because they are ideologically more solidly right-wing, but Macron will still get more votes from them than Le Pen and a lot just won’t vote. Again, this is really not surprising, because Fillon’s electorate and that of Le Pen are sociologically very different. Fillon’s voters are more educated, more catholic, more financially well-off, etc. If Le Pen is smart, she will campaign on immigration and security before the second round, which is how she can maximize the number of votes she can pick from that group, but she will still get less than Macron.
This analysis is largely confirmed by the polls about the second round, which show Macron has a lead on Le Pen somewhere between 20 and 26 points. Of course, she can make up part of it and I think she will, but there is just no way she can make up all of it. In 2012, Sarkozy managed to reduce Hollande’s lead from less than 8 points immediately after the first round to slightly more than 3 points on the day of the second round, but it still wasn’t enough and not anywhere near the kind of come-back Le Pen would have to make in such a short period of time. Such a come-back would be absolutely unprecedented in the history of polling, so it’s just not going to happen. Indeed, if the past is any indication, even a major terrorist attack would not be enough. It’s also worth noting that, in the first round, the polls were remarkably accurate, a lot more than I thought they would be given the numerous sources of uncertainty this year.
Thus, the comparison with Brexit and Trump is extremely misleading, since neither Trump nor Brexit were ever so far behind in the polls as Le Pen is against Macron. Trump was also the Republican candidate, even if the party’s establishment loathed him, so party loyalty could still play a role and indeed it did. But Le Pen is not the candidate of the traditional right-wing party, whose leaders have more or less asked people to vote for Macron, including Fillon the night of the first round. The same thing is true for the leaders of almost every other party. Among those who matter, only Mélenchon refused to ask his supporters to vote for Macron, which incidentally was the smart political move for reasons I don’t care to explain in this post, but as I explained above the vast majority of them will still vote for Macron or at least won’t vote for Le Pen.
Le Pen is also facing a conundrum on how to campaign before the second round. Mélenchon’s voters for the most part won’t vote for her, but she can try to dissuade them from voting for Macron, by pointing out that unlike her he supports economic policies they abhor. However, if she does that, it will turn off Fillon’s voters who strongly dislike her left-wing positions on the economy and, as a result, many who could have voted for Le Pen won’t vote at all or will vote for Macron. Similarly, if she campaigns on immigration and security (as I think she should anyway because it’s probably how she can maximize her score), she will motivate Mélenchon’s voters to vote for him to stop her. By comparison, in 2012, it was easier for Sarkozy to campaign for the second round, because he could just speak to right-wing voters. Anyway, no matter how you look at it, there is just no way Le Pen can win.
EDIT: If you read French, you can also have a look at this post, where I substantiate the claim I make above that the idea that the National Front is a fascist party is a myth that was created by the socialist party in the 1980’s in order to divide the right-wing vote. I should note that, although many people continue to be surprised when I say that, this is totally uncontroversial among specialists of that period.