The campaign for the second round is different to the first round, encapsulated by the expression: in the first round voters choose, in the second round voters eliminate. The first round often sees candidates pitch to their respective bases, hoping to get over 20% (at which point qualification to the second round becomes more likely); the second round, where 50.1% is needed to win, is often a campaign for national unity. No electoral college nor first past the post constituency votes get in the way of the need to score a majority of the popular vote.
As a result, the second round can seem oddly disconnected from the first, an example being Nicolas Sarkozy’s unsuccessful second round campaign in 2012, where he lurched wildly to the right with speeches and policies that would not have been out of place in Marine Le Pen’s manifesto. His rightward shift may have turned off a sufficient number of centrists and independents to hand victory to François Hollande. Hollande’s job in 2012, once he had rallied the majority of the left to his cause (a job he did by March), was not to be Sarkozy. Thus he was hobbled early on by a chunk of his support consisting of anti-Sarkozy protest votes.
This year, despite the top two finalists having been long predicted by the polls, there was an eerie sense of surprise and relief on the night of 23 April. Macron’s stilted and overly confident speech and Le Pen’s brazen nationalism left many feeling unsettled. The prospects for a real substantive debate during the two weeks allowed for the second round campaign seemed slim.
As if the country were suffering a collective hangover, two days then went by without anything much happening. Le Pen began to backtrack on the more Europhobic parts of her platform, deleting leaving the Euro from her manifesto and downplaying the immediacy of any referendums on the subject. Macron spent several days focusing on choosing candidates for the Legislative Elections in June (arguably a more important election that the Presidential this year, and a subject we will return to). The media buzzed with the news of various big hitters on the left and the right calling for an explicit vote for Macron (in order to keep Le Pen out, rather than out of genuine political support), as opposed to those who called for a vote against Le Pen (suggesting that they would spoil their ballots rather than vote for one or the other).
I’ll deal with the calculations behind calling for a vote against Le Pen rather than for Macron later, and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s shockingly opportunistic call to vote for Le Pen. First we have a perfect distillation of the campaign in one day: last Wednesday. Macron and Le Pen found themselves (not together, but not far apart) in Amiens in the car park of a local tumble-dryer factory. The factory’s closure in 2018 had been announced; production would move to Poland for the familiar reason of cheaper labour costs. Here was the debate between Le Pen and Macron: competition versus protectionism. Open versus closed borders. An economy that is controlled by state diktat as opposed to a liberal market economy with its winners and losers.
Macron, a native of Amiens, had met the local trade union leaders that morning. They were rather impressed by his engagement and understanding but frustrated by the lack of easy answers. They would not have believed his promises anyway. Both Sarkozy and Hollande made promises to keep factories they visited open. The factories closed shortly after.
Le Pen, knowing Macron was in Amiens, plotted her own flying visit, not to the unions, but the striking workers on the rowdy picket line in the car park. Flush with local National Front councilors (Le Pen is in friendly territory in the region) she dropped by, stayed for 20 minutes, was loudly applauded, and engaged in a marathon of selfies. She also promised unequivocally that the factory would not close. Macron, seemingly on the back foot, went to the car park and was loudly booed. Whilst the workers might not have really believed that Le Pen was their saviour, they certainly viewed Macron as the enemy. Rather than flee, he stayed for over an hour and debated the issue with his extremely hostile audience. After a chaotic start, the meeting ended with shaking of hands, Macron having stuck to his arguments, a series of tweaks to the way that competition and professional training better function in order to minimise the damage that seemingly inevitable factory closures could cause.
Le Pen’s spokespersons then spent 24 hours scrambling to explain how she would ensure that the factory would remain open. Partial nationalisation, closed borders, protectionist tarifs: all were mooted. But nobody was particularly convinced, least of all the workers themselves. The unions remained implacably hostile. That doesn’t mean that the strikers won’t vote for Le Pen, but, as with Trump supporters in the US even now, they appear to support her without much faith in her actually doing what she plans.
Media coverage of Macron’s visit was largely positive; analysis focused on the difference between his rationalism and realism and Le Pen’s demagoguery. This probably reinforced Le Pen’s arguments that the media is overwhelming pro-Macron, but the analysis was fair in this case. Macron should be complimented for standing his ground and not changing his position is simply because an angry crowd demands that he does. Le Pen should be ashamed for giving in to the temptation of telling people what they want to hear, simply to remain popular. It is clear once more that she has almost no economic policy of any substance.
Le Pen now seems bogged down in problems of her own making: a reminder that her campaign has largely succeeded despite her involvement rather than because of it. She stood down as National Front party leader last Monday to show that she was no longer a party apparatchik but instead a true independent force. This spectacularly backfired when the number two who took over was exposed as having made negationist and revisionist comments to a French academic 10 years ago. After a brief attempt to deflect the public outcry, Le Pen ceded to pressure and installed Steeve Briois, the young and popular mayor of Henin-Beaumont (the small northern town that became the battleground for the Le Pen-Mélenchon face-off in 2012’s legislative elections and a symbol of the Front in power) as iterim Party leader. Since this PR blunder, Macron has been able to remind the remaining 20% of undecided voters (and a good number still toying with spoiling their ballots) with tweets, visits and speeches of the nasty side of the National Front.
Whilst that line of argument gets raucous applause from the faithful, ever since the first round results, I have been plagued by the memory of the final weeks of the Hillary Clinton campaign against Donald Trump. Clinton’s campaign became solely about why people shouldn’t vote for Trump. This proved not to be enough to convince people to vote for her. Macron faces the same danger, and whilst he has got a few eye-catching policies which should be hammered home in the last five days, he lacks an overarching message. His optimism and his openness are start but they are not enough to convince the French, a naturally pessimistic people. Reminding people how awful Marie Le Pen is will get him so far – it might get him to 50% – but to reinforce his position going into the legislative elections, he probably needs to score above 60%. Otherwise he risks falling into the Hollande trap.
Aside from a few interviews on major radio stations in morning drivetime, and the plethora of spokespersons on rolling news channels, the last opportunity for the candidates in this campaign will be Wednesday night’s single debate where Macron and Le Pen will go head to head. Debates rarely flip support from one candidate to the other, but the audience will be huge and each candidate will be eager to speak to people that won’t have engaged with their rallies or other interviews. Le Pen will try to reassure the conservative right that she is safe; Macron will remind the same people that she is not. But he must do more than that. He must convince voters to vote for him, otherwise, best case scenario, he risks being in office, but not in power, come the evening of 7 May. Worst case, the scepticism of Macron will gain traction and spoiled ballots will allow Le Pen to squeak through. That is still not the most likely outcome according to the polls, but then neither was Trump.