Since 2013, when François Hollande’s presidency first started to run into trouble, there have been two near-certainties in French politics. The first was that the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen would win the first round of the presidential contest in 2017. The second was that she would lose, by a heavy margin, to a candidate from the mainstream right.
(Under the rules of the French electoral system, if no candidate secures more than half the vote, the top two candidates go through to a run-off round a week later.)
Now both those certainties have been upended. Although François Fillon, the candidate of the conservative mainstream, is still just about in contention for second round berth – despite being enveloped in the “Penelopegate” scandal he still secures close to 20 per cent in most polls – he is at third or fourth in most polls, behind Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate, and in some polls, behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the radical left. He overshot his poll performance in the primaries, but would require a similar shock to make it into the second round now.
That means that the French Republicans, for so long expected to sweep all before them, are now likely to miss out on the second round though they are still the favourites for the parliamentary elections in the summer.
Now Le Pen herself may miss out on the second round as well. A series of scandals, involving party funding and the large number of out-and-out Nazis still holding senior roles in the party, as well as Le Pen’s own declaration that France had no responsibility for the rounding up of French Jews during World War II are all resulting in a slight drop off in her poll share, bringing her level with Emmanuel Macron, though both candidates still retain a decent lead over Mélenchon and Fillon, currently battling it out for third place.
It’s just about possible to see a perfect storm where Le Pen falls behind a little in the polls, and some of her supporters bolt to a more acceptable home elsewhere on the right, that is, François Fillon. That could see her fall into third place, either to the advantage of Mélenchon or Fillon himself. (For what it’s worth, senior Socialist party politicians believe that they are now polling at or close to their absolute core vote, and that there is not much left for Mélenchon to squeeze. There are however, two candidates to Mélenchon’s left who he could further squeeze in order to make the second round.)
It’s possible, but not in my view all that likely. Le Pen’s electoral mission has always been to cover up the stench around the National Front long enough to seize power, not remove its source. It’s fumigation, not detoxification, that is her aim. It’s about reducing the social stigma around voting for the far-right (and also around abstaining should your preferred candidate not make it to the second round).
It’s the work of years, aided by French laws guaranteeing a degree of airtime and media exposure to all political political parties. And the evidence is that it has worked well enough to guarantee about a quarter of the vote.
My strong feeling is that quarter will be enough to guarantee Le Pen’s place in the second round, even though the identity of her opponent is less certain.