Enda O’Doherty writes: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” the celebrated American baseball catcher Yogi Berra is reported to have said. And yet we go on making them, even in a field as volatile as electoral politics in its current phase seems to be. We have of course every right by now to be fed up with people reminding us that “no one” predicted the success of Trump or the result of the Brexit referendum, particularly when their interest in citing such largely unexpected results seems to be a veiled threat that more “unlikely” – and very probably unpleasant – electoral events may be just around the corner.
Who now remembers the February 2019 local government elections in Ireland, when Sinn Féin lost nearly half its seats across the country (78 out of 159)? Shortly afterwards, Stephen Collins in The Irish Times wrote: “When Mary Lou McDonald took over as party leader there was a lot of media speculation about Sinn Féin entering coalition after the next general election. Now the challenge will be to try and hold the 23 seats it has. If its vote falls to less than 10 per cent in line with the local election outcome it will inevitably lose Dáil seats.”
“If” is a useful word when you’re in the political commentary business, an essential one even. What we know now but couldn’t really have known then was that Sinn Féin would, on the dissolution of the Dáil ten months later, go on to add another 15 seats to the 22 it then held. This success was, given government failures on housing and health and the Fianna Fáil opposition’s less than inspiring response to them, predictable (and it was predicted). What had been less predictable was the party’s spectacular electoral collapse of the previous year, which may have been partially due to a lack of interest in local elections and consequent low poll, particularly in the working class areas where Sinn Féin is strong.
As general election year 2021 dawned in Germany an opinion poll conducted by INSA showed the Christian Democrats with an eighteen-point lead (CDU/CSU 36%, SPD [social democrats] 15%, Greens 18%). Three months later, the Christian Democrats seemed to have fallen back quite significantly, and the social democrats and Greens were running level (30%, 17%, 17%). In early spring the Greens bounded into the lead, six points ahead in one poll in late April (22%, 13%, 28%). By the middle of the summer, however, the Christian Democrats had re-established their lead, with the SPD again bringing up the rearguard (27%, 17%, 18%). The final phase of election year, before voting day on September 26th, was to see quite surprising developments. Between late July and mid-September the Christian Democrats fell from 27 points to 21 and the Greens from 18 to 15 while the social democrats jumped from 17 to 26. What on earth was happening? Well one theory might be that the voters’ minds were being concentrated, in a way they had not been previously. The electorate was waking up to the fact that it would no longer have its great favourite, Angela Merkel, to take care of things in her remarkably quiet, calm, and largely consensual manner. Who might they choose instead? The Greens’ standardbearer, Annalena Baerbock, came to be perceived as someone who did not have a sure enough grasp of economic issues to be chancellor; the Christian Democrats’ candidate, Armin Laschet, had never been as popular with the conservative voting base as some of his rivals and during the campaign failed to either inspire or reassure. This left it open to the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, finance minister in the outgoing grand coalition government, to profit from his rivals’ deficiencies.
Scholz, who is not hugely popular among SPD activists, for whom he is not left-wing enough, was often portrayed in the media as a competent manager, but perhaps somewhat cautious, lacking in zip, even boring. Political journalists of course like their job to provide them with some entertainment and so these personality characteristics are anathema to them – but not, it would seem, to the German electorate, who do not tend to be averse to politicians who refrain from shouting or left-wingers who lean a little towards the centre, or indeed right-wingers so consensual in approach that some of their own camp think they might as well be on the left. (The staunchly conservative Die Welt newspaper remarked sourly that Merkel might go down in history as “the most successful Social Democratic chancellor of all time”.) During the campaign, the Scholz camp was certainly not unwilling to profit from his perceived resemblance in political style to Merkel. A chancellor is more commonly a Kanzler, but for sixteen years Germany has had a Kanzlerin. A rather cheeky SPD poster showed a reassuring-looking Scholz with the slogan “Er kann [he can be] Kanzlerin.”
It can perhaps be said that the Germans finally made up their minds only when they got the chance to examine the goods on offer more closely (the final result – Christian Democrats 24.1%, social democrats 25.7%, Greens 14.8% ‑ showed a late, though insufficient, recovery for the CDU/CSU and a continued falling off in the Greens’ support). But what do these wildly veering graphs – the Christian Democrats eighteen points ahead, four months later the Greens six points ahead, the eventual winners showing in third place for much of the year before the election – actually tell us? It all looks a lot more like the Grand National than the political processes of a nation which has a reputation for taking things rather seriously.
There are of course certain distortions innate to opinion polling. You can tell a pollster anything you like: your words have no cost attached. When it comes to actually casting your vote you have to take into account practical consequences: if your decision results in the SPD leading the next government (as is now very likely) there will be a substantial increase in the minimum wage – good for many but not such good news perhaps if you are an employer. If your vote were to produce a Green chancellor you might no longer be able to drive your Audi down at the autobahn at 180 kph, as is currently your right. When they get it wrong pollsters like to remind us that a poll can only provide a snapshot of opinion at a particular time. But perhaps in an era when fewer people seem to be guided by settled political values but are offered endless opportunities to sound off on their whims or voice their “humble opinions” the more appropriate metaphor might be a selfie.
What is very likely to prove the most interesting election of next year will take place in France on April 10th and 24th. For a number of decades French politics seemed to have a settled, stable pattern based on two large blocs of the left and right (the latter holding the presidency in the periods 1974-81, 1995-2007 and 2007-12 and the former from 1981 to ’95 and 2012 to ’17). This stability began to crumble in the 2010s, with the steady growth of the far right Front National, later Rassemblement National (from 10.4% in 2007, to 17.9% in 2012, to 21.3% in 2017 – all first-round presidential election figures), the implosion of the socialist party (PS) following the failure of its right and left wing to agree terms with each other and, more recently, a crisis in the centre-right due to the dominance of the far right and the absence of any clear plausible and popular leader. The French Parti socialiste had won 331 seats in the 2007 legislative elections; in 2012 it won 45. In the same contest a party which hadn’t existed in 2007, La République en Marche (LREM), won 350 seats. Truly, as Benedick observes in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, “man is a giddy thing”.
The latest irruption into, or disruption of, French political life has come with the looming possible candidacy of a rival to Marine Le Pen on the far right in the shape of the polemicist Éric Zemmour. Zemmour’s name started being added to opinion poll questionnaires from July this year. Initially he attracted between 5% and 8%, but by October this had jumped by ten points and in some polls he was passing out Le Pen (whom he has described as “a socialist”).
The most important thing to remember about French presidential elections is that they are two-round affairs. In the first round everyone can pile in; in the second, two weeks later, only the leading two from the first round remain. This arrangement encourages –though it does not guarantee – a good deal of voting for the less disliked candidate, who in 2017, for most voters, was clearly Macron (who won by 20.7 million to 10.6 million votes). In the first round these candidates were more evenly matched, with Macron on 8.7 million votes and Le Pen on 7.7 million. About five million first-round voters could not bring themselves to vote for either Macron or Le Pen in the second.
Before the advent of Zemmour, opinion polls tended to show Macron and Le Pen running roughly even, or Le Pen marginally ahead, suggesting that 2022 might well be a re-run of 2017, though very possibly producing a narrower second-round victory for Macron. (Zemmour – whose chief stock-in-trade is the threat to France, usually identified as a Muslim one ‑ is still not a declared candidate but is obviously encouraging speculation that he will run, perhaps just in the interest of selling more of his popular ultra-nationalist histories of France, or of making mischief and indulging his ego).
With Zemmour in the picture prediction becomes more complicated. Some things have not changed, and don’t seem very likely to. The two rival Trotskyist candidates are on 1% each, the communists on 2%, the left-wing independent (former PS) Arnaud Montebourg on 3%, the Green Yannick Jadot on 6% to 9%, the radical left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon (memorably represented as “Michel Vidal” in the French political thriller Baron Noir) is on 7% to 10% (he won 19.6% in 2017) and the Parti socialiste’s Anne Hidalgo seems stuck on 5% or 6%. None of these at the moment looks like a contender to make the second round. Nor are the minor candidates of the sovereigntist far right, Jean Lassalle, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Florian Philippot, all on 1% to 3%. This leaves us with Macron, Le Pen, Zemmour and the standardbearer of the centre-right. The “Gaullist” party, Les Républicains, will choose its candidate in early December. Of the three leading candidates, Michel Barnier, Valérie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand, Bertrand, who is president of the regional council of Hauts de France (northeastern France, Le Pen’s bailiwick), is the clear favourite in opinion polling but he may not be quite right-wing enough for his party (which could be why he is currently calling for a referendum on immigration quotas). If he is chosen, he will need to significantly improve on the 13% support he is currently showing if he is to get to the second round.
One assumption that every commentator is making is that Emmanuel Macron will seek a second presidential term. It also seems very likely that if he does he will – based on his current showing of between 23% and 26% ‑ make the second round. Pollsters have asked their sample voters who they would vote in a series of hypothetical second-round contests. The results are in most cases fairly stark. The latest figures are Macron vs Le Pen 55/45; Bertrand vs Le Pen 62/38; Macron vs Bernard 54/46 (though an earlier poll showed 50/50); Macron vs Zemmour 61/38. The Bernard vs Zemmour hypothesis does not seem to have been put but it might well show the largest gap.
For the moment, and possibly for another few months, Macron is remaining presidential, touring the country but not exactly entering the fray – to the mild annoyance of some of his supporters, one of whom has recently said that it is the head of state’s duty to “represent seriousness in the face of opponents lacking all rationality who take the French for imbeciles”. The campaign, when it does get going properly, looks like being a vigorous one: with Le Pen in the running, or Zemmour and Le Pen, there will be no lack of poison.
For the moment, Emmanuel Macron must remain favourite to win a second term. But remember, man is a giddy thing.
For some background on recent French politics see https://drb.ie/the-french-are-different/
For a view of the role of the extreme right in French history and the political pedigree of Éric Zemmour see https://drb.ie/articles/enemies-of-the-nation/