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    French citizens go to polls to choose a new president; centrist Macron and far right Le Pen advance to second round

    Special Election Report:

     

    A presidential election was set to be held in France in 2017 with a first round on April 23, 2017, and a second round on May 7, 2017. 

     

    Background:

     

    France’s first even presidential primary of conservatives took place on Nov. 20, 2016, and was marked by high voter turnout.   The contest to choose who would lead Les Republicans into the 2017 presidential election was a tight one with  Alain Juppe being viewed as the favorite of the race  over two other well-known candidates, Francois Fillon and Nicolas Sarkozy.  if no one candidate captured an outright majority, a second round between the two top performers would be held on Nov. 27, 2016.

     

    The French conservative primary was marked by high voter turnout  with Fillon winning the  second ballot decisively — a surprise end, given the fact that Juppe was seen as the favorite.  In fact, Fillon captured an outright majority and 68 percent ahead of Juppe who had 32 percent.    

     

    Socialist President Francois Hollande soon made clear that he would not be seeking re-election so here would be another Socialist standard bearer.   His prime minister, Manuel Valls, was seen as a likely alternative. Firebrand Arnaud Montebourg ,  former Education Ministers Benoit Hamont and Vincent Peillon, former government minister, Sylvia Pinel, were also being considered as  possible Socialist candidates although Valls remained the favorite on the left as of late 2016.  The Socialist primary was to be held in early 2017.

     

    To that end, in mid-January 2017, the first round of the Socialist primary was held and Hamon — a critic of the outgoing President Hollande’s economic policies — pulled off a surprise win over pro-business Valls.  With neither Hamon nor Valls receiving an outright majority, a second round would be held between the two on Jan. 29, 2017.  On that day, Hamon defeated Valls — a testimony to the antipathy felt by the French Socialists’ base for the economic policies of the outgoing Hollande presidency.

     

    Other presidential contenders included  Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far right / ultra-xenophobic National Front, leftist iconoclast and former Socialist Jean-Luc Melenchon, as well as outgoing President Hollande’s former economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, who would be running as a centrist.  Several other individuals were also contesting the election. 

     

    The general consensus  at the start of 2017 was that Fillon would  likely face Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right in a presidential contest in 2017.   Polling data indicated that  the likely Socialist contender would not fare well in the first round, and the presidential contest would likely come down to a battle between Fillon  and Le Pen.  Such a scenario would mean that the left would have no choice but to back the conservative in a second round,  which would likely be between  Fillon, and  Le Pen — an extremist right winger.   In 2002, the leftists were presented with the same type of choice in the second round and had to back conservative Jacques Chirac against Jean Marie Le Pen.   Thus, in 2017, Fillon was expected to win the presidency. 

     

    It should be noted that the conventional wisdom was soon somewhat upended when former economy minister, Macron, appeared to be making headway as the centrist option.   In addition to drawing large crowds at rallies across France, Macron was also posting competitive polling numbers — essentially on the heels of Fillon and Le Pen.   Macron’s momentum was spurring anxiety from among Socialists, who were already in trouble and unlikely to make it to the second round. 

     

    Macron added to the drama of the impending elections by stating that he would field candidates for the parliamentary elections set to be held in June 2017, which would follow on the heels of the presidential polls to be held in April 2017 and May 2017.  Should he pull off a win in the presidential contest, Macron was attempting to show that  he would not be forced to hold sway in a “cohabitation” scenario whereby the parliament would be controlled by a party hostile to his interests and agenda.

     

    Pre-election Developments:

     

    At the start of 2017, the conservatives were in some disarray as Fillon found himself embroiled in something of a scandal as Le Canard Enchaine newspaper reported that the former head of government paid his wife thousands of euros for dubious reasons.   The negative coverage and polling data indicated that Fillon was politically damaged; as such, party faithful was trying to coax him to withdraw from the race and replace him with Juppe or another option.  But Fillon made clear that he would stand as the party’s presidential contender.   

     

    By February 2017, pressure was mounting for conservative presidential candidate, Fillon, to withdraw from the race over allegations of his wife’s faux job.   As before, Fillon insisted he would maintain in the race, but that decision was being made at a time that Le Pen was creeping upward in the polls. 

     

    In early March 2017, pressure was rising on Alain Juppe  to replace Fillon, who continued to deny the prevailing allegations that members of his family were paid for fictional jobs.  As before, and despite polls showing that Fillon was at risk of not even making it to the second round, Fillon continued to insist that he remain in the race. 

     

    Fillon's prospects took a hit in mid-March 2017 when he was put under formal investigation  due to  suspicion of diverting public funds, complicity in misappropriating funds, receiving the funds, and then not declaring assets completely. 

     

    The beneficiary of a weakened Fillon was  Macron, who would easily beat Le Pen in a second round, were he able to top Fillon and pull off a top two performance in the first round.

     

    By the start of March 2017, polling data indicated that Macron  was increasing his support -- in fact sailing past Le Pen in the first round.   His strong economic credentials, including his agenda of fiscal discipline and stimulus, mixed with his progressive social views, appeared to find resonance with the French people.  Macron was also being helped by an endorsement by former independent presidential candidate, Bayrou.  

     

    For his part, Macron appeared to be positioning himself for a battle with Le Pen, accusing her of betraying France's ideals. Mocking  Le Pen's campaign slogan "In the name of the people,” Macron said, "Some today pretend to be talking in the name of the people, but they are just ventriloquists. They don't speak in the name of the people, they speak in the name of their bitterness, they speak for themselves, from father to daughter and daughter to niece.”

     

    It should be noted that by earlier in February 2017, Macron had accused Russia of interference into the French election, via Internet attacks and Russian propaganda stories intended to hurt Macron and advance Le Pen’s prospects.  The parallel to the 2016 United States election was clear where intelligence agencies found that Russia directly intervened into the United States election to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and help Donald Trump.  It was to be seen if the Russian element would influence the French election. 

     

    Meanwhile, in the early spring of 2017, the far-left contender, Melanchon, indicated that he had secured 500 endorsements from elected officials required to contest  the presidential election.  He would be backed by the Communists; however, his presence in the race, along with the Socialist candidate, Hamon,  would mean a divided left wing vote in the first round set for April 23, 2017.  Neither was expected to make it to the run-off election. 

     

    Final list of candidates for the presidency:

     

    The candidates for the French presidential election of 2017, in alphabetical order, as follows: 

     

    Nathalie Arthaud of the far left Trotskyist Workers Struggle; Francois Asselineau of the sovereignist anti-EU and anti-NATO Popular Republican Union; Jacques Cheminade of the anti-EU Solidarity and Progress Party; sovereignist  Nicolas Dupont Aignan of the Debout la France; conservative/center-right Francois Fillon of The Republicains; Benoit Hamon of the left wing Socialists; centrist independent Jean Lassalle; Marine Le Pen of the far-right xenophobic Nationalist Front; socially progressive, fiscally rational independent Emanuel Macron of En Marche, an unaffiliated movement; Communist-backed Jean Luc Melanchon of the Left Party; and workers rights' advocate Phillipe Poutou of the New Anti-capitalist Party. 

     

    Polls --

     

    Note that in March 2017, a BVA poll for Orange  showed Le Pen and Macron in a tight first round race, and with Macron best positioned to secure election victory in the second round.

     

    Following two televised presidential debates, as of the first part of April 2017, a Kantar Sofres poll for  Le Figaro, LCI and RTL showed Macron and Le Pen tied on 24 percent in the first round, with the leftist, Melenchon, moving up to third place with 18 percent -- ahead of both the conservative candidate, Fillon, and the Socialist candidate, Hamon.  

     

    In the same period of early April 2017, a BVA poll for Orange showed Le Pen out front with 26 percent, and Macron just behind with 25 percent; Fillon was in third place in this poll with 19.5 percent and Hamon and Melanchon were trailing in the 12-13 percent range.  

     

    In mid-April 2017, with a week to go until election day, an Elabe poll for the magazine L'Express showed centrist Macron now in a slight lead with 24 percent, ahead of far-right Le Pen who had 23 percent. Both were significantly ahead of conservative Fillon, who was at 19.5 percent and leftist Melanchon who had 18 percent.  These poll findings were roughly consistent with a daily Opinionway poll, which on April 17, 2017, showed Macron and Le Pen tied  at 22 percent, with Fillon close behind with 21 percent, and Melenchon with 18 percent.

     

    As before, all expectations were that the presidential contest would go to a second round, with the likely finalist contenders being Le Pen and Macron.  With leftists, center-leftists, centrists, moderates, and some conservatives expected to consolidate around Macron to stave off Le Pen in the second round, the conventional wisdom was that Macron would likely become the next president of the French Republic.  

     

    Round One Election Results:  

     

    French citizens cast their votes in the first round of the presidential election on April 23, 2017.   

     

    Early results indicated that Macron won the plurality of the vote share in the first round of the French election with 24 percent.  Macron advanced a small but significant lead over Le Pen who took 21 percent.  The two percent advantage for Macron would offer him the cachet of knowing that he had beat out a crowded field, even topping Le pen who was favored to win the first round until only a few months prior.   Fillon was in third place with close to 20 percent of the vote share, with Melanchon just behind in fourth place taking 19.5 percent.  Hamon was trailing far behind this pack with only 6.5 percent -- a humiliating showing for the Socialist Party of the outgoing President Hollande.  

     

    In this way, center/center-left Macron was set to contest the second round  against the far right Le Pen in May 2017.  

     

    In that run-off, Macron would be helped by a consolidated  vote share of center-right conservatives, centrists, center-leftists, and leftists, all of whom would be united in ensuring a far right ultra-nationalist candidate, such as Le pen, from winning the presidency.  

     

    To this end, Fillon wasted no time in endorsing Macron, saying he would vote for Macron in the second round, and warning that Le Pen's National Front would "lead our country to failure and chaos."  Likewise, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a member of Fillon's The Republicans said, "Without hesitation, as far as I'm concerned we've got to rally behind Emmanuel Macron."  The losing Socialist candidate, Hamon, admitted that his  party had suffered a "historic blow" but urged voters to back Macron and reject Le Pen in "the strongest possible way."

     

    But it should be noted that  Melanchon was not following suit. Instead, he refused to endorse Macron; however, the general consensus was that a healthy share of his supporters would make the pragmatic decision to not so much vote for Macron as they would vote against Le Pen  and the National Front via a Macron vote. 

     

    Predictions for the second round indicate that Macron could likely send Le Pen to crushing defeat, securing more than 60 percent with le Pen on track for less than 40 percent. 

     

     

    -- April 23, 2017

     

    Written by Denise Youngblood Coleman, Ph.D.

    President and Editor in Chief

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