On May 7, voters will head to the polls to elect the next President of France. France’s avidly anti-immigrant and Eurocentric National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, has ascended from the fringes of French politics to the mainstream by riding a wave of toxic nationalism. After receiving 21.4% of the popular vote, Le Pen advanced to the runoff election in late April against centrist candidate, political novice, and former investment banker Emmanuel Macron.
2016 will be remembered as the year of populist upsets. From the Vote Leave campaign’s successful efforts in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, to Donald Trump’s stunning upset over Hillary Clinton in the United States presidential election, voters across the Western World embraced an anti-globalist, anti immigrant, blood-and-soil brand of conservatism that balked at the ruling political classes and promised radical change. But with Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders’s failure to win the Dutch prime ministership, and strongman Norbert Hofer’s shortcoming in the Austrian presidential elections, confidence surrounding the far-right populist movement has ebbed somewhat in the early months of 2017.
Can Le Pen, whose platform includes halting Muslim immigration, abandoning the Eurozone, and holding a referendum concerning French membership in the EU, reverse the recent losses the populist project in Europe has endured? Her rhetoric and controversial remarks regarding immigrants and the European Union have elicited many comparisons to Donald Trump. Despite being considered an underdog by pollsters, commentators on the left are now fearing that Le Pen might find a way to pull off an upset and upend European politics for decades. After all, Donald Trump was considered dead in the water only a few weeks before the American election.
In the run up to the November election many sites like the Huffington Post and New York Times gave Hillary Clinton an upwards of 90% chance of winning the presidency. Pundits have since pointed to such misguided confidence in the Clinton campaign as evidence that modern polling is fundamentally flawed, that the media and politicos were egregiously out of touch with the “average American,” and that anything can happen come election time. But let’s start with the numbers.
A recent poll taken by Elabe has Le Pen trailing Macron by 20.4 points. Although it is not technically impossible for a candidate to climb out of an electoral hole of such proportions, the time constraints placed on Le Pen make such a feat highly unlikely. Voters will head back to the polls tomorrow for the runoff election, giving Le Pen little time to pry former far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s voters away from her opponent Macron. Trump, on the other hand, never trailed Clinton by the same kind of margin that Le Pen now faces, and he had months after the Republican National Convention to consolidate his support amongst conservatives and independent voters living in the “purple” districts across the Midwest and Rust Belt. In critical swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan, states that were supposed to be part of the Democrats’ Midwestern firewall, Clinton held relatively small leads that dwindled as the election neared. In no swing state did Clinton ever lead Trump by 20-plus points.
Indeed, FiveThirtyEight’s statistical guru Nate Silver (who was much maligned before the U.S. election for giving Hillary only a ~70% chance of winning the presidency), recently noted that Trump trailed Clinton by only two points in the “average” swing state. Silver also takes issue with what he calls “social desirability bias”; the theory that poll respondents underreport their support for candidates like Le Pen and Trump out of fear of seeming racist or xenophobic. As Silver and others have demonstrated, candidates of far-right parties generally secure a share of the vote remarkably similar to what their polling averages had been on the eve of election time. Le Pen actually underperformed her polling average by a couple of points in the initial election.
Furthermore, conservatives in the United States enjoy many systemic advantages when it comes to elections; nowhere has this been more evident than with the electoral college. Without it, neither Trump, nor George W. Bush would have ever entered the Oval Office. Le Pen’s voters, much like Republican voters in the United States, are spread across France’s rural areas; Macron, meanwhile, drew his support from those living in urban centers. Were France to use an electoral system similar to that of America’s, Le Pen might win more electoral votes by running up larger margins across France’s rural departments; in reality, Le Pen does not enjoy such structural advantages. The candidate that wins the popular vote outright becomes the next leader of France.
Finally, Le Pen has not been politically legitimized to the same extent that Trump had been by the United State’s two-party system. While a concordant of high-profile Republicans like Jeb Bush and John Kasich refused to endorse Trump, the “Never Trump” campaign was a fairly hollow movement that gained little traction within the Republican Party. That Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, won such a measly share of the popular vote demonstrated that at the end of the day, the vast majority of Republican voters stood by their party’s nominee.
Conversely, most high-profile French political leaders, including the former mainstream conservative candidate Francois Fillon and socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, have fervently denounced Le Pen as a danger to the Republic and have urged their supporters to throw their weight behind Macron. In fact, every major candidate for president has publicly denounced Le Pen, with the exception of far-left candidate Jean Luc-Mélenchon. While Le Pen has campaigned aggressively to win over Mélenchon’s voters and has tried to appeal to their distaste for neoliberal economic policy, Mélenchon publicly denounced the National Front party and stated, “none of us will ever vote for the far-right.” A survey taken by the firm IFOP found that only 19% of Mélenchon’s voting bloc plans on supporting Le Pen, yet pundits insist on pushing the narrative that far-left voters will pull for Le Pen. The New York Times, for example, cited Mélenchon’s abstention from endorsing Macron as a “lift from an unlikely source” to Le Pen’s presidential ambitions.
Despite the fact that Le Pen faces a 20-point deficit, many commentators remain cautious and are prudently hedging their bets. While it remains to be seen if enough Fillon or Mélenchon voters will defect and cast ballots for Le Pen — therefore hijacking Macron’s hopes — the data suggests an upset is thoroughly unlikely. Barring a catastrophic terrorist attack or a massive polling error of unprecedented margins, Marine Le Pen will most likely not be elected as France’s next president.