With three weeks to go until the first round of voting, France’s crowded field of presidential contenders squared off in a presidential debate last night. While Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen remain the clear frontrunners, the debate’s main beneficiary was the Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Financial Times:
Early polls suggested that far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon won the debate, with 25 per cent of people saying he was the most convincing. Mr Macron ranked second, with 21 per cent, while Ms Le Pen trailed with just 11 per cent. […]
Polls before the debate suggested Mr Mélenchon would take 15 per cent in the first round, well ahead of Socialist party candidate Benoît Hamon and not far behind Mr Fillon’s 17 per cent. But Mr Mélenchon will be hoping for a rise in his poll numbers this week.
If Mr Mélenchon were to edge ahead of Mr Fillon, it would mean that all the top three candidates in the election are not from the main political parties, the first time in French postwar political history.
Mélenchon has very little chance at winning the election outright, but his surge in support is notable. For one, it suggests that the French electorate is increasingly moving away from mainstream parties, spurning the established Socialists and Republicans in favor of independent alternatives on the left (Mélenchon), right (Le Pen), and center (Macron).
More immediately significant, the enthusiasm for Mélenchon raises serious questions about turnout in the second round. If Mélenchon is eliminated in the first round, as expected, will his supporters show up to vote in the runoff? Or will they stay home, seeing little point in choosing between two comparatively conservative alternatives? In an election that has been tarnished by scandals, voter abstention is set to reach record levels this year, with many French disillusioned by their likely choices. And a scenario of depressed voter turnout has always been Le Pen’s best hope for a victory, so long as she turns out her faithful base in reliable numbers while courting enough left-wing voters attracted to her anti-EU, anti-free trade populism.
In the past, the French Right and Left have ultimately united in a “Republican front” to prevent a National Front victory. But in this year’s unique climate, Macron would be wise not to take that scenario for granted—and he will surely need to get Mélenchon’s voters on board to ensure Le Pen’s defeat.