PARIS – One particularity of French elections is that on election day, the country’s media is strictly banned from publishing any information about how people have voted until polls close at 8pm. Foreign outlets, though, have no such compulsion. Belgian and Swiss media conduct their own exit polls and were publishing them from 6pm last night (10 April).
Everyone following the election reads the polls and discusses them, though only in private, until the much more reliable French exit polls are published at exactly 8pm.
One election day exit poll for La Libre, a Belgian paper, had Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent, and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, tied on 24 per cent. As they waited for 8pm, activists at the president’s election night showed each other their phone screens. Most people I spoke to were confident that their candidate would make it through but were not upbeat. There was a sense that Le Pen had had a good campaign and would run Macron close.
“I think we’ll get through to the second round, but there’s a chance she could come first,” one activist holding a European flag told me.
In the end, France 2’s exit poll showed Macron 5 per cent ahead of Le Pen (the final margin was a little narrower). Huge cheers erupted, reflecting the relief among the the president’s faithful that he had over-performed on the final pre-first round polls and foreign estimates. He even significantly improved his voters numbers on the first round result in 2017.
The mood in the room was optimistic as Macron’s supporters awaited his victory speech. The activists cheered successive concession speeches from other presidential candidates that endorsed a vote for Macron – from the centre-right, centre-left, green and even communist leaders – in order to deny Le Pen office.
When Macron finally arrived, he was greeted with ecstatic cries of “five more years!”
He began his short speech by thanking the rivals who had immediately backed him for the second round, immediately and unequivocally. He acknowledged that many voters would support him to oppose the far right rather than because they necessarily liked his policies.
The speech was positive, with some overtures to the voters the president will need to win. Its most interesting part came when Macron declared he was ready to “invent something new to unify different politics for a common purpose”, which seemed like a signal to voters of the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Quite what form this would take wasn’t clear – few left-wingers would support any kind of formal agreement with the president. Yet it was a recognition that the critical battle ahead of the second round will be for voters on the left.
Macron had some strong words for Le Pen. She would take France out of Europe. Under her leadership, France would have allies only with the “populist and xenophobic international”, he claimed.
“The only project for the cost of living is ours,” he said, a response to Le Pen’s effective campaigning on the issue. Neutralising the salience of her attacks on the living standards crisis will be essential to his chances of winning re-election. It remains to be seen whether he can defang her attacks on the cost of living, and whether using the same lines against the far-right will continue to work.
His challenge in the second round will be convincing anti-Le Pen voters that it is indeed possible that she could be elected, and that they should back him to avoid such an outcome. Paradoxically, his better-than-expected result – likely, in part, because of recent polls showing that Le Pen was on the cusp of victory, pushing centrist voters in the first round to back him tactically – may also hurt him in the run-off on 24 April. Some may think that his victory is a certainty after all, and wonder why they should bother to hold their noses to back him?
Macron is still the favourite to win in the second round, but he knows that his odds are longer than they appeared even two weeks ago. As the initial post-exit poll euphoria in the room faded, I got the sense that that realisation was beginning to sink in for Macron’s activists too.