The (American) Idiot’s Guide to the French Election

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Socialisme ou barbarie? Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past 12 months, the world has seen its fair share of shocking, epoch-making elections — ones that have left us living in the age of Brexit, President Trump, and sultan Erdoğan. On Sunday, France could very well make this chapter of world history even more fascinating for our great-great-grandchildren, assuming humans and history books survive the next century.

For a long time, the big story of the French election was the disconcerting strength of National Front nominee Marine Le Pen. Founded by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front began its life as that rare breed of nationalist party that’s nostalgic for the days when its nation was occupied by Nazis. More concretely, Le Pen the elder built a fierce but narrow constituency on appeals to anti-Semitism, anti-globalism, economic protectionism, law-and-order crime policies, and, above all else, keeping the Muslim hordes out of France. (I know — hard to believe that a platform this ugly could attract significant support in an advanced Western democracy.)

The French hold their presidential elections in two waves. The nominees of the nation’s many, many parties face off in a battle-royale-style first round. Then, the top-two vote getters proceed to a runoff. This system allows parties with small — but committed — bases of support to become genuine contenders, for at least the opening round. And in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front proved to be just that. The hatemonger actually made it to the finals — where he was effortlessly annihilated by Jacques Chirac.

So, even as the French news media hyped Marine Le Pen’s strong first-round poll numbers for eyeballs and clicks (I know — hard to believe the French Fourth Estate could be so craven and nihilistic), the sophisticated take was that she actually had very little shot of winning the whole thing.

And then François Hollande’s Socialist Party nominated the prodigiously uncharismatic Benoît Hamon, who has struggled to even retain support from the party’s base. And the center-right Républicains nominated Catholic reactionary François Fillon — a longtime opponent of same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and the welfare state. If Fillon’s program appeals to anyone outside his conservative Catholic base, it would probably be the very Islamophobic nationalists who make up Le Pen’s. In a Fillon–Le Pen runoff, the more multiculturalism-tolerant candidate would be the author of a book titled Overcoming Islamic Totalitarianism. Fillon has vowed to restore traditional French values by limiting immigration and regulating Islam. That said, he is a bit less hostile to both immigrants and the EU’s existence than is Le Pen, and has less interest in denying France’s role in the Holocaust or banning burkinis.

But his sharpest contrast with his neo-fascist opponent may be on economics. Fillon wants to raise the retirement age, lengthen the workweek, cut civil-service jobs, and slash welfare spending — Le Pen wants to lower the retirement age, keep the workweek capped at 35 hours, protect civil servants, increase welfare spending, and pursue protectionist policies aimed at increasing domestic employment.

The best choice for left-of-center French voters in a Fillon–Le Pen race is far from clear, but many would doubtlessly vote to protect their retirement benefits.

But then, it looked like a timely scandal and a charismatic outsider would spare France that grim choice. News broke that Fillon’s wife and two of his children collected more than 900,000 euros in public funds as parliamentary aides while doing little work. Establishment forces turned their eyes to independent outsider Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is a political novice — an investment banker and former economic minister, known for his business-friendly reforms. Running under the banner of his own personal party, En Marche (On the Move), Macron has kept his platform deliberately vague. But he’s basically the French version of what some in the United States would describe as a pragmatic technocrat (and/or “globalist cuck”). Macron is fiscally moderate, socially liberal, Eurozone-friendly, and multiculturalism-positive.

The candidate’s youth, good looks, charisma, and reassuringly mainstream rhetoric vaulted him into first place — and all polls suggest that he’d wipe the floor with Le Pen in a runoff.

So, as of couple weeks ago, the global mainstream was finally starting to breathe easy. France wasn’t on the cusp of electing its own Trump, but merely its own Justin Trudeau.

But then, France’s version of Bernie Sanders aced the presidential debates.

Now remember, this is France: The centrist, fiscally moderate candidate is the one who cites Scandinavia as a model for reforming the welfare sate. The French “Bernie Sanders” candidate, by contrast, is a literal communist fellow-traveler.

The 65-year-old Jean-Luc Mélenchon was a longtime member of the Socialist Party’s left wing. But by 2008, the Socialists had veered too far to the right for Mélenchon’s taste, so he and the party’s like-minded leftists decided to found a new party, allied with the French Communists. Mélenchon won a seat in the European Parliament in 2009, and ran for president in 2012, garnering 11 percent of the vote.

This year, Mélenchon is running as the standard-bearer of a new party called France Insoumise (or, France Untamed) — and on a platform of taxing all income above €400,000 at 90 percent; shortening France’s draconian 35-hour workweek to 32 hours; exiting the American-dominated NATO and International Monetary Fund; demanding new terms from the European Union allowing France more freedom to set its own monetary, labor-market, and fiscal policies; rewriting the French Constitution to make the nation more small-d democratic; devaluing the euro; and radically increasing investment in offshore wind energy, while gradually transitioning France to an economy sustained by “local produce and zero-carbon consumption.”

Mélenchon touts a genuinely radical view of world affairs, and has, in the past, evinced more sympathy for Hugo Chavez’s former government than America’s. Mélenchon once summarized his feelings about the United States thusly: “Yankees … represent everything I detest. A pretentious and arrogant empire, composed of uncultured rubes and pitiable cooks.”

But, as the quote might suggest, Mélenchon is also a sophisticate with a quick wit. He outshined Macron during the televised debates, and won over some of the centrist’s soft supporters. And most of Macron’s support is soft — the Establishment’s best hope is a first-time candidate from a brand new party. Macron has no historic base to fall back on.

Mélenchon’s support from young leftists appears relatively intense. Some have sought to spread the good news about socialism via a video game: In Fiscal Kombat, the player guides an amped-up Mélenchon down a French street, as he expropriates the wealth of the capitalist class, one bourgeois pedestrian at a time.

Mélenchon is a fan.

One month ago, Mélenchon was irrelevant, claiming a mere 12 percent support in polls. Now, those surveys are giving him 19 percent of the vote, putting him neck and neck with Fillon for third place. The front-runners, Macron and Le Pen, are polling just a bit ahead, at around 24 and 23 percent, respectively.

So: There’s a good chance this whole thing ends with the relatively mainstream, outsider candidate handing the Le Pen family another second-round embarrassment.

But it’s entirely plausible that the French will end up having to choose between a radical leftist euroskeptic and a neo-fascist one. Or between Catholic and populist flavors of neo-reaction. Or, really, any combination of the top four candidates. As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten explains:

Polls in France are pretty good (better than in the United Kingdom), but there’s still a margin of error. In the first round of the past eight presidential elections — according to data compiled by political scientists Will Jennings and Christopher Wlezien and aggregated by The Crosstab’s G. Elliott Morris — the average absolute difference in the margin between the final week’s polling average and the top two finishers’ actual results has been 3 percentage points. That’s equal to the difference between Le Pen and Mélenchon. It’s 1 point less than the difference between Le Pen and Fillon over the last week.

And that 3-point error is just the average — sometimes there are bigger misses. Indeed, the true margin of error is probably closer to 7 to 9 points in either direction, depending on how you calculate it. That’s more than enough for Mélenchon to catch Macron in round one.

If Macron survives Sunday, he’ll begin the run-off campaign with at least a 15-point polling advantage over any of his potential foes. If Le Pen makes the top two, she will begin hers with at least a 15-point deficit, no matter whom she faces. Which is to say: Communism still seems to have fascism’s number in the 21st century.

The (American) Idiot’s Guide to the French Election