Le Pen’s Slim Shot at the French Presidency Depends on Low Turnout

  • Almost 11 million people abstained on April 23; biggest group
  • Macron leads Le Pen by 20 points ahead of May 7 runoff vote

Yu Says Polling Is One of the Winners in French Election

Marine Le Pen’s narrow chances of becoming president of France hinge on swathes of the electorate not showing up at the polls on May 7.

That’s the conclusion of analysts sifting through the numbers after she won 21 percent of the vote in the first round on April 23, trailing front-runner Emmanuel Macron by about 3 percentage points.

“The equation is rather simple: A voter who abstains, or casts a blank ballot, is a lost voter for Macron,” said Dominique Reynie, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris. “Le Pen has a strong, mobilized base, so what it takes for her to boost her chances is for those who say they’ll stay home to, well, stay home.”

A Le Pen win would at this point be a far greater shock than Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. election in November. Polls have consistently shown her losing by around 20 percentage points.

But there are still millions of votes up for grabs. Of the 37 million people who voted in the first round, just under half backed Le Pen or Macron. Some 21 million voted for other candidates or cast defaced ballots, and another 10.6 million abstained. It’s already proved to be the most unpredictable French election in recent memory, marred by scandal and the shadow of terrorism.

“What I fear is a situation of widespread abstention if people think he’s won,” Socialist Party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said on France2 television Wednesday morning. The party has endorsed Macron. “That would open the door to Le Pen.”

Energy Minister Segolene Royal warned of the risk of not mobilizing against Le Pen in an interview on Europe 1 radio.

Unpredictable Voters

In theory, the stars could align for Le Pen if she can pick up enough of the votes that were cast for Republican Francois Fillon, Socialist Benoit Hamon and Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, or if enough of them decided not to vote this time.

But it will be a tall order. Fillon and Hamon have already endorsed Macron. Only Melenchon has so far refused to tell his 7 million supporters what to do, though an online consultation only gave them the choice of abstaining or choosing Macron. A Harris Interactive survey conducted after the initial vote shows that more than a third of them plan to abstain. That said, 51 percent will support Macron and only 12 percent will back Le Pen.

Still, voters are in an unpredictable mood in the face of deep-seated unemployment, immigration and terrorism fears. 

And so Le Pen must hope that voters who opted for the mainstream parties will take a bet on the unknown in round two.

“People will no longer be guilt-tripped or threatened by politicians into voting against Le Pen,” said Jeremie Mani, chief executive of Netino By Webhelp, a company that specializes in moderating online user comments. “There’s a new line of activists who are refusing to vote, to protest the way the government is run and the politicians on offer.”

‘Only 10 Little Points’

Le Pen is hopeful that she can erase her 20-point gap, saying she only needs a 10-percentage-point swing. Bloomberg’s composite index of second-round polls shows Macron would win by 61 percent to 39 percent.

“We can win, and I’ll tell you more, we will win,” she said on France 2 television on Monday. “Only 10 little points, trust me, it’s totally feasible.”

Another factor that could help her is the broad sense of dissatisfaction with all politicians. Some are already calling for a boycott of the entire political process via a social media campaign called #SansMoiLe7Mai, which means “Without Me on May 7.’

While Macron’s lead isn’t insurmountable, it should still be enough to see him through. Data compiled by Bloomberg show that even if the turnout drops to the 1969 low of 64 percent, Le Pen would need to more than double her party’s best showing. The average turnout since the first direct vote in 1965 is 78 percent.

“The tipping point where there will be enough absentee voters for her to win is almost off limits,” said Jean-Daniel Levy, head of Paris-based pollster Harris Interactive. “We don’t believe that she can win.”

— With assistance by Andre Tartar, Hayley Warren, Marie Mawad, Anne Swardson, and Gregory Viscusi

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