One year today, the world will be digesting the first round results of the French Presidential Election and preparing for the decisive, two-way run-off. If the current projections prove accurate, we are set for another divisive culture war with enormous implications. I expect Macron v Le Pen would also be the biggest political market since Biden v Trump.
Betting projects a repeat of 2017
That head-to-head is very much the signal from Betfair markets - a re-run of 2017, when Macron won by a huge 66/34 margin. That result was interpreted as a resounding rejection of the far-right, in the wake of Trump's victory in the States. European moderates breathed a sigh of relief when he was defeated last November but this election campaign will demonstrate that fascism remains in vogue.
Marine Le Pen nearly doubled her father's share when runner-up in 2002, but the fundamental dynamic was repeated. Opponents of all stripes united around the moderate to defeat a common enemy, leaving the impression that there was a permanent anti-fascist majority in France. That assumption, however, is increasingly less clear.
Polls much closer this time
Recent polls of that likely head-to-head run-off show Macron around 8% up. Less than a quarter of his advantage in 2017, but still a pretty strong position for an incumbent, one year out, against a candidate whom it is easy to marshal tactical support against.
That explains why he's odds-on at 1.84/5 to win a second term and she is a 4.216/5 chance despite consistently leading first round polls. Such is the reliability of her support, Le Pen is a mere 1.171/6 to make the final-two, compared to 1.364/11 for Macron.
No doubt, the incumbent is by far the likeliest winner but with so much yet to play out, a bet at odds-on makes no appeal. After all, remember what happened in 2017.
2017 saw incredible drama and swings
At this stage, Macron was around 33/1. He'd announced a plan to form a new party but nobody knew if it would take off. Francois Fillon was even bigger, around 66/1, but would head into election year as odds-on favourite after winning the Republican Primary. The Socialists never looked a threat.
Fillon was subsequently beset by scandal and the party riven over whether to replace him. Amid the sleaze and chaos, the clean, fresh newcomer stormed through the middle. In some respects, it was an upset to match Trump's achievement.
Macron's honeymoon was short-lived
Four years on, Macron is now just another politician with a record, who has inevitably alienated parts of the electorate. Within three months, his approval ratings had turned negative and stayed there. Currently, 60% disapprove.
In other countries with different electoral systems, that would imply certain defeat. Much can happen over the course of a year. Scandal, policy failure, reputational damage. He only has 24% to defend, compared to around 16% for the leading named Republican candidate. The swing Macron gained from Fillon's demise could easily be reversed.
Primaries offer breakthrough opportunity
So who are the alternatives to the big-two? Neither the conventional centre-right and centre-left parties have yet determined their representative. Top-rated in the betting among their number are Xavier Bertrand for the Republicans and Anne Hidalgo for the Socialists. Neither is a confirmed runner.
That uncertainty could work to somebody's advantage. A chance to steal the limelight during the primaries and generate an exciting campaign, before Macron v Le Pen becomes the settled narrative. That is much less likely for the Socialists, who perennially fail to unite the fractious French Left.
Barnier could become a key player
One name being mooted who will capture the attention of Brits is Michel Barnier. Fresh from leading the Brexit negotiations, the 70 year-old has returned to French politics, formed a faction within the Republicans and written a book, surely to embellish his leadership credentials.
At the current odds, Barnier appeals most. A genuine heavyweight on the international stage and loyal Republican stalwart. His candidacy (unconfirmed as yet) would likely generate more of a buzz for his party than alternatives who are known and defined by their recent domestic opposition. Parallels will be drawn with Biden.
Whilst I'll be very surprised if the winner doesn't come from Macron, Le Pen or a Republican, don't rule out the potential of a minor candidate making headway and messing with assumptions regarding the first round. Macron was merely the latest independent to cut through. Francois Bayrou had his moments in 2007.
Jean-Luc Melonchon, leader of the Left Front, stormed up the polls during the last campaign only to ultimately underachieve. A repeat would be no surprise and I'll be watching his campaign rhetoric closely. Some polls have shown around four in ten Melonchon supporters switch to Le Pen in the second round.
Kremlin interference is likely
The idea of far-left voters backing the far-right may sound bizarre but this is yet another effect of the information war. France is another powerful Western democracy that has long been under attack from Russian active measures. They trigger, co-ordinate and amplify the extremes with weaponised or fake footage. The Yellow Vest protests and riots - seemingly left-wing in sentiment - were manna from heaven for RT and Ruptly.
On the eve of his victory, Macron threatened to sue anyone who published details of a hack. The operation appeared to be a replica of the Wikileaks scam that damaged Clinton on Trump's behalf. A repeat, or some alternative Kremlin operation, is to be expected.
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