How will the 2017 French presidential election work?

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 13th January 2017

After last year’s political whirlwind, attention has turned to 2017’s elections for evidence of further shocks. Voters are going to the polls in the Netherlands, in Germany but most attention is focused on France, whose election takes place in April and May, and where the far-right Marine Le Pen currently polls in first place.

On the centre-right the candidate of choice is Francois Fillon, who has been described as a French Thatcherite whereas the centre-left is very split.

To get a sense of this landscape, here’s a recent first round poll from the French pollster Ifop-Fiducial with the position on the political spectrum of the candidates.

Candidate Percentage Support Left-Right Position
Marine Le Pen 26% Far-right
Francois Fillon 24% Centre-right
Emmanuel Macron 17% Centre
Jean-Luc Melenchon 12% Left/far-left
Manuel Valls 10.5% Centre-left
Francois Bayrou 5.5% Centre
Yannick Jadot 2% Centre-left
Nicholas Dupont-Aignan 1.5% Centre-right
Nathalie Arthaud 1% Far-left
Philippe Poutou 1% Far-left


Several things about this landscape are striking. Firstly, there are now 5 candidates polling in double digits. French politics, like politics elsewhere, is experiencing fragmentation. So while Le Pen is in first place, it is on only a little more than 1 in 4 of the population, with 74% of the population supporting candidates to her left.

Only in First Past the Post can candidates on the extreme ends of the political spectrum with low levels of support win 100% of political power. Unlike First Past the Post, however, France’s electoral system prevents a candidate from winning on such a meagre percentage of the vote. France uses a two-round system in which, if no one wins more than half the vote on election day, the two most popular candidates will go through to a second ‘run off’ round two weeks later, where voters will return to the polls to pick the President. On this polling that would lead to Le Pen vs. Fillon second round. When Ifop-Fiducial polled this hypothetical second round, they found that Fillon would win with 64% of the vote to 36% for Le Pen.

Usually France’s Two Round system results in the second round featuring the most popular centre right candidate and centre left candidates. But note that there are only two centre-right candidates and Dupont-Aignan polls a mere 1.5%. It is the centre and left which is most split, with Emmanuel Macron in third.

Macron is the former economy minister of President Hollande, a centrist who has the highest approval ratings of any French politician.

Ifop-Fiducial also polled hypothetical second round results against both Fillon and Le Pen. Macron beats Le Pen by 65% to 35% and Fillon by 52% to 48%. This would seem to suggest he is what students of Social Choice Theory call the Condorcet winner, that is, the candidate who would beat all other candidates if they were the only two running and, therefore the best representative of voter views.

The Two Round System makes voters vote tactically, by predicting who would get into the second round, then changing behaviour accordingly. A strategy that left wing voters might adopt then would be to tactically vote for Macron to eliminate Fillon or Le Pen in order to have a candidate more to their taste in the second round.

But for those who back the far-left Melenchon, for instance, Macron is still fairly distant from what they really want. Such voters are thus left in the unenviable position of choosing between expressing their true views or voting against what they most dislike, based on a prediction which may be wrong.

A small tweak to the French electoral system would be to move from a two round ‘run-off system’ to an instant run off system like the Alternative Vote. In an instant run-off system French voters would say who their second, third or fourth choices were on one ballot paper, rather than having to come back two weeks later. If no candidate wins 50% of the vote the worst performing candidate is eliminated and the votes of their supporters are moved to their second favourite candidate. Thus the votes of left-wingers would steadily accumulate around the most widely accepted left-wing candidate. Once it is down to two candidates the one with the most votes wins. In this way French voters could support whoever they liked safe in the knowledge that their vote would be much less likely to contribute towards the election of a candidate they disliked. Whilst the world of multi-party politics has broken First Past the Post, even the two round system increasingly struggles to cope with the realities of modern politics.

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