The Politics of Generation, Race, and Class in France
A conversation with Philippe Lemoine on the French election, low information voters, why Zemmour failed, and the "Le Pen curse."
On the CSPI podcast this week, I talked to Philippe Lemoine about the French election. We were going to wait for the results to record our conversation, but Philippe told me he was so sure Macron would win that we didn’t need to. So we decided to record last Friday, knowing that if Le Pen pulled it off he would look like a fool in front of the world.
But of course Philippe turned out to be correct. Granted, picking Macron on Friday wasn’t exactly going out on a limb, but he was saying the same thing back when the polls showed the race much closer.
On April 3, one week before the first round, Philippe announced that if Le Pen got to the second round she would receive 40-45% of the vote.
As it turns out, she got 41%. On April 8, a YouGov poll showed her at 49% in the second round, making the race a toss-up. Around that time, she reached a 28% chance of winning at PredictIt, but Philippe never wavered in his belief that the election wouldn’t be close.
In addition to marveling at his forecasting ability, in this conversation we discuss differences between French and American politics, why Zemmour never caught on, how low information voters think, and the “Le Pen curse,” or why she sabotages the French Right. Interestingly, while in the US we are used to young people being more liberal, in France the opposite is the case, and we talk about why that is near the end.
You can listen to the podcast at CSPI, or watch the video here. Some of the highlights of the conversation are transcribed below, broken down by topic. The transcript doesn’t include everything, so check out the audio or video if you’d like to hear the entire discussion.
Don’t forget, Philippe will be at UT this Wednesday. Come out and see him if you’re around.
Forecasting the Election
Richard: Today is the 22nd of April, 2022. There is a French election coming up. So today’s Friday, that’s going to be Sunday, April 24th. And this podcast we’re going to release April 25th. We were going to record one in the aftermath of the French election and then try to release it the day after. And at some point you said to me, we don’t need to wait for the election, I already know what’s going to happen. So I said, okay, in that case let’s just record the podcast now. So here we are, and people are going to be listening to this in the future, and Philippe is either going to be right or he’s going to be wrong.
So you’re confident about what’s going to happen on Sunday, huh?
Philippe: Yeah, I’m pretty confident. Actually, what you said is that we should wait for the results to record the podcast, and I said in that case we can record it right away because I’m very confident Le Pen is going to lose, Macron is going to be reelected, and she’s not only going to lose but she’s going to lose very badly. Not as badly as last time of course, but I’d say she’s going to lose by at least 10 points. I expect that she’s going to get something like between 43 and 44% of the vote. I’d be surprised if she got more than 45. But she’s going to lose, that much is certain. I think it’s virtually certain she’s going to lose by, well… that’s a bit too strong. But I think it’s very likely that she’s going to lose by at least 10 points. And yeah, it can get worse than that. Like I said, if I had to bet right now, I would say she’s going to get something between 43% and 44% of the vote.
Richard: Yeah… As we record this the polls show something like that, the polls show 10-15%. But you started saying it was sure before there was even a runoff. And there were some polls right after the first round of the election that showed it within a few points, right? 3, 4 points, something like that. And that’s when you were saying she’s going to lose for sure. People can check your Twitter record. So you didn’t just start saying she’s going to lose when you saw the polls, she was down by 10-15, right?
Philippe: Yes. Right now the poll average shows her at something like 44%. But right before the first round, I think they were within 3-4%. But even already at the time I said that she was going to lose by at least 10 points. The reason why I said that is because I knew that those polls did not reflect what was going to happen in the second round. There are several reasons for that.
One reason is that it’s basically two elections. And so French voters before the first round, they’re focusing on the first round. We don’t have a two-party system, we have several parties and candidates. There are lots of people who eventually are going to vote for Macron, but they really don’t like Macron and before the first round they’re focusing on beating Macron or getting to the second round or beating Le Pen to get to the second round instead of her. If you ask them who they’re going to vote for in the second round they’re not going to… Again, it’s like a different election. They’re not going to be in the right mind space, you can’t take very seriously what they tell you at this point. Of course it tells you something, but it’s not nearly as good as what many people would assume.
Another reason that is related to that one is that… So what happens is that most French pollsters, they ask people how certain they are of voting. So for instance, one of the most prominent ones asks them to say how certain they are by putting themselves on a 0-10 scale. 0 being I’m certain I’m not voting, 10 is I’m absolutely certain I’m going to vote. And then they only ask people who put themselves at 9 or 10, they only keep those people and ask those people, but only those people, who they plan to vote for in the first round, same thing for second round.
What this means is that in effect, they only take into account people who, at the moment they’re being interrogated, are certain they’re going to vote in the second round. But I knew there were a lot of people, especially on the Left, who… Before the first round was over or right after it’s over, a lot of people on the Left, if you ask them, “suppose that your candidate…” because that’s what effectively those polls were asking them, “if your candidate is not qualified to the second round, are you going to vote for Le Pen or for Macron?” And those guys, they were basically very disappointed. So at this point, they were not in the right mindset to say I’m going to vote for Macron, even though that’s what many of them would end up doing. So a lot of them would say they’re still disappointed. A lot of them would say I’m not going to vote. If it’s Macron against Le Pen, there’s no way I’m voting. Because they’re pissed off, their candidate lost in this scenario. They don’t want to hear about the second round. Of course, that’s what they say on Sunday night. But you know that they’re going to calm down after a few days. The other reason is there’s going to be heavy propaganda against Le Pen, telling them that she’s the far-right candidate, it would be the end of the republic, blah blah blah.
And so those people, they go from being really pissed off because their candidate wasn’t qualified… I’m talking in particular about Mélenchon voters who are the largest blob of people who could affect the poll. And so I expected that part of the reason Le Pen and Macron were so close in the polls when the results for the first round were announced is because a lot of those people who answered the pollsters told them they were not going to vote, or at least they were not certain of voting. So they were not taken into account. But I knew a lot of those people would in fact vote despite what they said on the night of the first round.
That most of those guys are not going to vote… This is another thing you hear a lot of pundits say which is pure nonsense. A lot of them say because Mélenchon is a populist, you know… Populist. It’s an illustration of how empty this term often is. Like, Mélenchon is a populist, Le Pen is a populist, of course a lot of them are going to vote for Le Pen in the second round if Mélenchon is not qualified. But this is nonsense because, not all of them, but most Mélenchon voters are highly ideological people. They’re very left wing. They’re not going to vote for the far-right candidate, especially someone whose name is Le Pen, a name which has almost magical powers in France now. Especially on the Left, it’s like the devil. So of course a lot of those guys were going to vote, and most of them were going to vote against Le Pen, not for Macron, but in practice that means for Macron.
So I expected that for all those reasons, and also because of the propaganda and everything. Because the media held back on a lot of stuff they had on Le Pen because they knew it would be more useful between the two rounds. And so I expected that for all those reasons she would go down in the polls as the second round would approach, which is exactly what happened. And now I’m expecting she’s going to end up, I don’t know, 43, 44%. Something like that.
French and American Electoral Politics
Richard: I watch French politics. I’m interested in the differences with American politics because that’s what I know. So in the US, when the media is just going to gang up on a politician, there are antibodies. Like it’s sort of baked into the system that the media is going to hate Republicans and be all but cheering for Democrats. And nobody says that the Republicans are going to lose in 2024 because that’s what’s going to happen; it’s baked into the model. We know it’s going to happen, but the Republicans are still going to have a chance, partly because of the Electoral College and partly because public opinion is so polarized and a lot of people don’t listen to the media. But France, it seems like, no. I don’t know if there’s more trust or less trust in the media, but there’s less polarization. Is that right?
Philippe: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s the explanation here. There is definitely not more trust in the media, trust in the media in France is extremely low. I don’t have the figures in mind right now, so I can’t tell you off the top of my head if it’s lower than the US. But I know it’s so low in France, it’s something like 20%. It’s similar to the US and possibly even lower trust in the media. [note: trust in the media in France in one 2021 survey was around 30%, nearly the same as the US. These two countries had the lowest figures among those polled.]
But the difference is polarization, and polarization combined, that’s another key difference, that interacts with this, combined with the fact that in the US you have a two-party system. Look, the media can bash on Trump or whoever the Republican candidate is as much as they can. At the end of the day you still have the basic fact of polarization. You still have two sides. And people who are on the right side, in both senses of the term if you ask me, they have no choice. If they want to beat the Left they have only one serious candidate. And this is not the case in France. If one candidate gets bashed in the head incessantly by the media, they have other options. Because the media, they focused on Zemmour before the first round, which is one of the reasons Le Pen was able to sail relatively easily without any trouble to the second round. The fact we don’t have a two-party system, it’s one of the many examples of the differences it creates. It leads to a lot of differences, so you can’t expect the same thing.
The media has more room to affect the election in that sense, even if trust in the media is very low. Because people may not trust the media, but if you’re a left-wing guy and you’re thinking of not voting… You’re a Mélenchon voter, so your guy was eliminated in the first round and you’re thinking what to do in the second round. Without the media, even if you don’t trust the media, you’re still going to be reminded all the time, they’re going to reactivate your, as it were, immune defense against the National Front, because this is something that has been bashed into your head for decades. And you’re going to be exposed to this whether or not you trust the media, and this is going to affect your electoral behavior.
So a lot of those guys, without those constant reminders, they may have actually not voted. In fact, a lot of them are not going to vote in the second round, just not as many as those who said they would not two weeks ago. They may have not voted or they may even have voted for Le Pen in greater number, which frankly, at least as far as the economic policy is concerned, if that’s what those guys are supposed to care the most about – of course it’s not, but their self-representation is that they care the most about economic policy – that’s the rational thing to do for them, because Le Pen’s economic policies are closer to Mélenchon’s than Macron’s. But even though they don’t trust the media, they are exposed to this incessant reminder that Le Pen’s election would be terrible, etc.
But even if all of those guys abstained, didn’t vote in the second round, Le Pen would still lose. That’s the thing, it’s like, why are people even talking about this thing like there is even a remote possibility she might win? She can’t. He won by, it was something like he’s 5 points ahead of her in the first round. You have Zemmour that got 7%. Even if she got all of those Zemmour votes, she’d still only be like 2 points ahead of him. And there’s plenty of room in the rest for him to get way more than those 2 points.
When we got the results of the first round, I did this little exercise where I made this little script – you can do a spreadsheet, same thing – where the script calculates the score of Le Pen and Macron, the second round, based on what hypotheses you make about who among the voters in the first round for each candidate, what they’re going to do. What proportion for each candidate is going to not vote in the second round? Among those who vote, which proportion is going to vote for Le Pen, which proportion is going to vote for Macron. And it also made some assumptions about people who didn’t vote in the first round but were going to vote in the second round.
And when you look at this, if you made reasonable but still, in my opinion, very favorable hypotheses for Le Pen, the answer is that keeping everything else equal, making pretty optimistic assumptions, something like Pécresse voters, half of them would vote for Macron where in fact, it’s going to be much more than half, that’s what I mean when I say it was pretty favorable to Le Pen. When you make all those favorable assumptions and then you look at what it would take, what Mélenchon voters would need to do for her to win, what I found is that it would have to be the case that twice as many Mélenchon voters would vote for her than for Macron. Which is never going to happen. Nobody who knows anything about French politics, which apparently is not a lot of pundits – even in France – that’s the most amazing thing. It’s never going to happen.
Richard: Okay, so we’ve got you on the record. What percentage chance does Le Pen have? 5%, 10%, 1%, what would you say?
Philippe: She has, I’d say, something like less than 1%.
Richard: [laughs] Okay. So people will see on Monday whether, you know, you’re going out there.
Philippe: I’m really not worried. Because that’s the thing, when I say that, people tell me all the time, a lot of people said that about Trump in 2016 and we know that happened. But first of all, I didn’t say that in 2016. I thought it wasn’t the most likely option, but I remember, I didn’t have a blog yet, but I wrote this long Facebook post which was about election prediction models. And I was arguing that, because there was this guy, I forgot his name, this guy who was running the model for the Princeton Consortium. Asian guy, I forgot his name… Wang. His name is Sam Wang. This guy said if Trump won, he would eat a bug on national TV. And I argued in that post his model was wrong because it didn’t take seriously enough into account the possibility of polling error or the fact that they were originally correlated, blah blah blah. Anyway, I said if you’re not careful you’ll end up eating a bug on live TV. And that’s what happened.
Richard: So independent errors, he’s assuming if the poll is off in Florida it tells you nothing about Wisconsin, which is nonsense.
Philippe: Yeah, he wasn’t quite assuming that, but he was making an error of that sort. He didn’t take that into account seriously enough.
Richard: He thought they were correlated, but he wasn’t taking the correlation seriously enough?
Philippe: Yeah, something like that. But in France it’s completely different. For one thing, it’s a big thing, we don’t have an electoral college. Because Trump lost the popular vote pretty handsomely actually, in 2016. He won because he carried three states by a few thousand votes, and that’s why he won. But we don’t have that in France.
Richard: But the polls were only a few points… The polling error would be much bigger than Trump in 2016. Trump in 2020 almost did the same thing with the Electoral College. Although here I think it was 6 or 7, that was the difference between Biden and Trump and then Trump came much closer. So maybe it was a polling error of 3 or 4 or something like that. You have a popular vote here, and you have to have a 10 to 15% polling error.
Philippe: That’s the thing. We don’t have the Electoral College and the margin in the polls is actually much larger. And also in presidential elections, French pollsters actually have a significantly better track record than American pollsters. You put all that together, you realize that this comparison that people make all the time with Trump in 2016, and you’re right, to some extent you could even make that comparison with Trump in 2020 even though he didn’t win because he was much closer than a lot of people, including myself I have to say, expected. But it’s a very flawed comparison that’s not going to happen. As people are listening to this, I can say very confidently that Le Pen has been trounced, you know? I’m not going to look like a fool in two days. It’s very different.
Richard: People just misremember 2016. They think the polls were a lot further apart than they were. They were acting as if Hillary was up by 10 or 15% or something, and that’s not what the polls said. 2016, I mean, people are misremembering it. If Hillary, it looked like was winning by 15% or 10% and then lost, that would have been a completely different thing.
The Failure of Zemmour
Richard: Going back to the first round and what happened to Zemmour. You wrote something for us about Zemmour, you seemed to think there was a good chance he would overtake Le Pen. And then pretty early I remember talking to you, you said probably he wouldn’t. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine you started to become confident that wouldn’t happen. Can you explain your take on why you were optimistic about Zemmour, and what you think happened?
Philippe: So my take hasn’t changed all that much since what I wrote in December for CSPI. Basically the argument I made at the time was that strictly speaking, in theory it was a competition between three people on the Right: Pécresse, Zemmour, and Le Pen. But I argued that Pécresse would collapse…
Richard: Pécresse, they call them the Republicans, right? That’s the mainstream right-wing party.
Philippe: Yes. That’s the mainstream Right, Sarkozy’s former party. Used to be one of the two parties that ruled France for decades. So this did happen, that wasn’t surprising. So I said the spot in the second round is going to be a competition between Le Pen and Zemmour. I thought that Zemmour had about, at that point I said in the paper he had maybe a 50% chance of getting to the second round. Which I still think was actually a pretty good estimate. But already at the time I said, of course I didn’t think about the war in Ukraine at the time, but I said the question, the real question if you want to know whether this was going to happen or not, was whether low information voters who tend to decide late in the campaign, last few weeks of the campaign, were going to be… Because a lot of those guys at this point were saying, to the extent they were saying anything, they were saying we’re going to vote for Le Pen. But my interpretation was that, my hypothesis was that they are saying that because Le Pen they know, they have been exposed to Le Pen. They hadn’t been exposed to Zemmour because, again, those are low information voters. They don’t follow politics very closely, they wouldn’t listen to candidates until the last…
Richard: Although Zemmour was a pretty important figure. He had a show, he had a book, is he like as famous as…
Philippe: Yeah, but you have to understand that he was an important figure for people who were obsessed with politics and the culture war.
Richard: So is he as famous Tucker Carlson is in the US? Is that a good comparison?
Philippe: He is, I guess, it would be a good comparison if Tucker Carlson ran for election. Politics nerds like us of course are very familiar with him, but most of the GOP voters in the primaries, they wouldn’t know him. Fox News, it’s not that many people, it’s like…
Richard: Yeah, but the primary thing confuses it. Primary voters are a small percentage of the population.
Philippe: Yeah, but even though they’re much higher information voters than the typical voter, but even they, a lot of them I bet won’t know much about Tucker Carlson and what he stands for on what issue.
Richard: I’d be surprised. Maybe you’re right for the general public. For the Republican primaries it’s really, really small. The turnout for primary voters is very small. Fox News is big. But anyways…
Philippe: But in France at least, in any case, it’s not a primary. You could argue the first round is kind of like a big primary, but it’s not a good comparison in many ways. A lot of those guys, even back in December… Again, if you’re a politics nerd of course you know who Zemmour was. If you listen to political interviews and watch political shows and all that stuff, or cultural shows because he was a cultural critic, you knew who Zemmour was, you had probably a pretty good idea because you’re probably the kind of guy who listens to political interviews. So you probably had a good idea of what he stands for and where he is on what issues, etc.
But low information voters, I bet most of them had no idea. For instance, I remember having this conversation with my parents. They were telling me about a conversation they had with someone in their village, a friend of them in their village. And they were asking her about Zemmour, and basically the woman’s answer was something like, oh yeah, that’s the guy that was on TV. That was about the extent of what she knew about Zemmour. People almost always vastly overestimate, I’m sorry, I’m talking about political nerds, vastly overestimate how much people know about politics. They almost know nothing about politics. So a big chunk of the electorate only gets some sense, some vague sense, of what each candidate stands for in the last few weeks of the campaign.
So already at the time what I was saying, the question is… Right now, those guys are saying Le Pen because that’s who they know. The question is, once they are exposed to Zemmour, because they start caring about the campaign, following the campaign in the last few weeks, are enough of them going to be seduced by him to put him ahead of Le Pen, and he’s going to make it to the second round? Or are they going to be put off by his more ideological or intellectual style, and stick with Le Pen? That’s what I said in December, and I still think that this was right. But now, the war complicated the thing.
One hypothesis is that what happened is that we have the answer to this question. Those low information voters who are predisposed to vote for right-wing candidates, anti-immigration candidates, they didn’t like Zemmour’s more ideological, intellectual style of politics, and so they stuck with Le Pen. That’s possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. Even in December I said that that was the big question. But the war means there is another hypothesis, in my opinion. The other hypothesis is this, and that’s also why, as you said, as soon as the war started, I said it was over for Zemmour basically. And the reason why I thought that is that the war shut down the campaign. There was no campaign after the war. So those last few weeks, which were going to be the weeks during which those low information voters would get exposed to Zemmour and possibly switch from Le Pen to him, this didn’t happen. There was no way it was going to happen because there was no campaign because of the war. The war shut down everything.
So you know, they’re not inconsistent. Both hypotheses could be true to some degree. But the bottom line is we don’t know what happened. Because there was no campaign, those guys, they stuck with who they knew, and who they knew was Le Pen. It’s the same thing that happened during covid. Whenever there was a big covid wave in January, there was no campaign for the same reason because the media were obsessed with covid and were not talking about the campaign. So again, that was something where new candidates or less known candidates didn’t have a chance to get a hearing from people who so far haven’t followed the campaign. So that was bad for Zemmour. Because when the war started, Zemmour had been rising steadily in the polls and gaining on Le Pen. He was only 3 points behind her. It may be that when those low information voters were exposed to him, they still wouldn’t have liked it, they would prefer Le Pen’s style and stick with her. But maybe not, we’ll never know. The war made sure of that.
Understanding Low Information Voters
Richard: People talk about ideas and the cultural stuff, and I think sometimes people really don’t understand the low information voter. And I think about it like this, let me see what you think of this.
When I was growing up, people I knew had parents who didn’t go to college and they were below average students, and they would go to McDonald’s, they would go to a chain restaurant. And then when I got older and started meeting people who were more intellectual, more educated, they would never go to a chain restaurant, right? Or very rarely. So it seemed like the lower classes had this sort of kind of brand loyalty. And in politics, I think that’s sort of Le Pen for the right-wing voter. And Zemmour is like a new fancy restaurant, which is going to be very appealing to a more intellectual kind of right-wing voter, but not necessarily the masses who want to eat McDonald’s and are happy with that. Does that sort of analogy make sense to you?
Philippe: Yeah, I mean basically that’s another way of saying, when you go back to the hypotheses I mentioned earlier, that the first hypothesis is true and basically the reason why Zemmour failed is because those low information voters, they didn’t like his more intellectual style of politics and they preferred…
Richard: But there’s two things, the intellectual style and the novelty, right? They might not like novelty, or they might not like the intellectual style.
Philippe: Yeah, I mean there are definitely some voters who are very loyal, who feel very strongly that Le Pen is speaking for people like her. Kind of what happened with Trump in the US. So they have some personal loyalty to her, that’s certainly true. But it depends, those people, I was going to say they tend to be not necessarily as low information voters as the ones we were talking about. But there are actually some, it depends on what you mean by low information voters. But there was some of that for sure. I don’t think it would have been enough if the mass of them, if the novelty factor, the loyalty to what they knew, I don’t think it would have been enough if they weren’t put off by Zemmour’s intellectual style.
I’m not saying they were actually. Like I said, it’s an open question whether this was really what determined the thing because the war did change everything. Not just because it put an end to the campaign, but because it put the issue of purchasing power and money back as the main issue because of gas increasing, the price of energy increasing. For low income voters that’s a big deal because that’s a big chunk of their budget. It became very difficult. When people are facing huge increases in their energy expenditures, although it didn’t really happen in France because the government basically poured a lot of money to block the price and prevent people from having to pay for the increase. But that was a worry, and we still felt inflation. It wasn’t as bad as in most European countries, but it was still pretty bad and people could feel it. So for low information, who tend to be low income, voters, for most people in fact, this became the main issue. When you start to care about those kinds of things, when you have to worry about paying your gas bill in the next month, you’re going to care less about stuff like immigration or the future of the French cultural makeup, that sort of issue. They’re not the sort of issues that are easy to mobilize people on.
Richard: Besides the electoral strengths and weaknesses, what were the ideological differences – let’s talk about the ideology first, we could also talk about class differences – what were the ideological differences between Zemmour and Le Pen in the last election?
Philippe: Le Pen in many ways, I don’t think it was that much more radical on stuff like immigration, but I think that he was more willing to be open about it, to be explicit.
Richard: Zemmour was explicit.
Philippe: Yeah. Zemmour said things that like a few years ago were the kind of things you would only hear weird anonymous people with anime profile pictures on Twitter say. He said things, I think in some cases it was actually a mistake…
Richard: What’s the most extreme things he would say?
Philippe: He said for instance he would create a Ministry of Remigración, which means sending back, not just stopping immigration, but actively sending back immigrants to their country. Which for him was only about sending the immigrants themselves. But historically the expression has been used to send even the descendants of immigrants who are French…
Richard: And that wasn’t his policy. He was just not sensitive to it...
Philippe: That wasn’t his policy, but he used this word that had this connotation. But I think that was something he did at the end that was a somewhat desperate attempt to keep his base, you know?
Richard: And Le Pen would talk about Zemmour being a sexist, right?
Philippe: Yeah, he wrote that book. Zemmour had a lot of baggage, we knew that when he started. Everybody understood that this was going to be a problem for him. That’s another thing I mentioned in my essay, women was going to be a big a problem for him. One of the reasons is that he wrote that book in 2006 called The First Sex, which was an amusing reference to de Beauvoir’s famous book The Second Sex, where he says a lot of extremely based stuff about women. And obviously, if you quote some of the passages out of context, and even sometimes with the context, but even more what people usually did is out of context, you can get stuff that will really rub a lot of women the wrong way, and of course it did. Again, that’s another place where the difference with the US is actually relevant here. The fact we don’t have a two-party system. And that’s something I explained in the essay at the time. This was similar to Trump, but for different reasons. Trump turned off a lot of women because of his sexism, but the thing is you have a two-party system in a highly polarized society…
Richard: Yeah. Nothing matters. Nothing matters.
Philippe: If you’re a Republican woman you may hate, or even a Republican man who is repulsed by Trump’s sexism, you may be repulsed by Trump’s sexism but you’re not going to be as repulsed by his sexism as you’re going to be by the Democrat left-wing policies. So you’re still going to vote for Trump.
Richard: Did he run on any anti-feminist policies, or was it just about the old book?
Philippe: I don’t think… When you look at policies, I can’t remember any policy that was particularly… No. I don’t think so, I don’t have anything in mind. He didn’t propose to create restrictions on abortion or to limit access to birth control, he didn’t do any of that stuff.
Richard: None of the major candidates… Le Pen doesn’t do that either. Was there any kind of talk about… The recent winner of the South Korean election was talking about eliminating the Ministry of Gender Equality or something in South Korea.
Philippe: Yeah he did, but I think Le Pen may have actually proposed that too.
Richard: Okay, so that wasn’t a real policy difference here.
Philippe: We have a law in France mandating that political parties have to present an equal number of men and women for the deputation, for legislative elections. And they’re not forced to do it, but if they don’t they have to pay a fine.
Richard: Yeah, I was looking at female representation in parliament, and I was surprised that France went from 10% in the late 1990s to 38% today. So it looks like that law or whatever, do you know when that law came into effect?
Philippe: It must have been 1999 I think or 1997. Sometime between 1997 and 2002, I think. [note: it was 1999]
Richard: Okay. So France, I didn’t know they had gender or sex affirmative action in France. [note: France does have gender quotas, but no race preferences]
Philippe: We do for elections. But for a very long time it didn’t really matter because political parties would pay the fine rather than actually do it, so it didn’t make much of a difference. Or they would put the women in districts where they had no chance basically. They’d find ways to get around the law, in some cases not even get around it, just pay the fine. The law probably had some effect, but I don’t know how much was the law and how much was just the general evolution of society, irrespective of the law.
Richard: Interesting. In America we have affirmative action in everything except elections, where basically you can have not a lot of women in Congress. But every other hiring decision does take sex, and of course race, into account. So that’s the cultural issues. It sounds like there’s not that much, except stylistically.
Philippe: Yeah, it was primarily a stylistic difference.
Old People Are Influenced by TV
Richard: And on economics Le Pen is very left-wing. I was just checking her thing…
Philippe: Yeah, the economy is the exception. On cultural issues, on immigration, it was primarily a stylistic difference. On the economy it’s different. On the economy, Zemmour’s strategy, which was actually the right strategy, was to be very moderate to appeal to Republican voters, people who voted for Sarkozy, Fillon, the party Pécresse was in this time, because those guys tend to be…
Now we can talk a little bit about class issues, and how that maps onto the political terrain here. Basically, Republican voters tend to be older and better off financially. Those guys, they are really scared, that’s one of the reasons Le Pen does so poorly among old voters. The reason she’s going to lose is because of old voters, and the reason why she’s not only going to lose but lose very badly is because of old voters. Because her scores are really bad with old voters.
Richard: Yeah. And this is sort of different from the Anglo world, where the younger are always left wing.
Philippe: In the US you have this very steep, but in the opposite direction, age gradient where for Trump for instance, as you get older you’re much more likely to vote for him and among young people he does terrible. And for Le Pen it’s exactly the opposite. And this is not a new thing, it’s been going on for a while. And one of the reasons is that they’re scared that her policies, and they have good reason if you ask me, would be inflationary, so they’d lose their savings. They’re scared that, which is related to this, that we’d be leaving the EU and the Euro currency, which would create a lot of inflation and instability. Old people are scared of this, especially pensioners are not sure, they fear their pensions will not track inflation, that that would be a way to erode their purchasing power. So they’re really scared of that stuff, and that’s one of the reasons why they don’t vote for her and why she lost, or she’s going to lose; why she lost for people who are listening. That’s not the only reason, but it’s definitely a reason.
So Zemmour, what he was trying to do, he was trying to steal the Republican voters. He was trying to get enough on each side, which wasn’t easy because they’re very different voters at this point. People who vote for Le Pen, education and income are very good predictors of voting for Le Pen. And so, low education, low income people massively vote for Le Pen, while even right-wing older, more better off voters, they don’t vote for her. They vote for the Republican or for Macron. So what Zemmour was trying to do was to get enough of each group to get to the second round. So one part of his strategy to do that was not to be revolutionary when it came to economic policy. So he basically took his economic policy… His economic policy was very standard, more like standard issue Republican economic policy, because he didn’t want to scare off those people. His bet was that there would be enough voters among the Le Pen electorate who cared primarily about immigration that even if he didn’t have this kind of economic policy would still vote for him. Which, you know again, I think this was the right calculation to be honest. I’m not saying it was necessarily going to work, in fact it didn’t work, but we don’t know if that’s because of the war or not, that’s the issue. But that made sense. Strategically it made perfect sense.
Richard: The polling on immigration is much more right-wing than you would guess from how Le Pen and Zemmour do in elections, right? There’s real hostility to immigration in public opinion but it seems the issue underperforms in elections. Is that right, and why do you think that is?
Philippe: Yes. The French public opinion has been for years, in fact for decades, very strongly opposed to immigration. And you’re right that this is not reflected in the electoral performance of Le Pen in the past, of both Le Pen and Zemmour. But look, that’s because it’s not the only… What many people will say, and certainly there’s some truth to this, is that immigration, though it is important and most people in France are strongly opposed to it, is not the only issue. People care about other stuff like the economy, etc. And I agree, this is true, this is part of the explanation. But I don’t think it’s the main explanation.
The main explanation, in my opinion, is because people are not ideologues. People don’t vote based on ideology primarily. Primarily people vote based on what social groups they most strongly identify with and what’s the perception of the different candidates in those social groups.
Richard: What does Macron represent to the masses of France? From outside he looks like the elite candidate. Do people associate him that way?
Philippe: Well, many people do. But Macron, people to a large extent, some people do, but most people who are going to vote for Macron in the second round are not going to vote for Macron, but against Le Pen, which is not the same thing.
Richard: He’s just a placeholder, he’s just not the evil person.
Philippe: Yeah, he is perceived as the elite thing, but he is also perceived as not being Le Pen, which is the primary reason why people voted for him in the second round, or are going to vote for him in the second round.
Richard: So Le Pen is seen as the person of low class, racist, uneducated people.
Philippe: Exactly. And an extremist. Here’s something that happens all the time, an experience I’ve had several times, and that many people have talked about and they’ve had similar experiences. You talk, for instance, to an old person in France, a grandmother. You talk to her about immigration. She starts saying stuff that Le Pen would never say. And when I say never say, I don’t mean stuff she would never say publicly. I mean she doesn’t even think stuff that radical. They’re like a thousand times more racist than Le Pen is. They’re saying that stuff, “racist” is a misnomer here, but you know what I mean.
So they say that stuff and then you’re like, oh so you’re going to vote for Le Pen? And they look at you, genuinely horrified that you would suggest such a thing. Me? Voting for Le Pen? I will never do that. I’m not an extremist, only fascists vote for Le Pen. This is somebody who just explained to you that if she had her way, she’d send back all the immigrants and their descendants, if it doesn’t work we’ll have to kill some. I’m exaggerating, but not that much. So that’s what I mean when I say people vote primarily not based on ideology, but based on which kind of social groups, who as a person in a social group they identify with, and how they perceive that kind of person votes. They don’t perceive themselves as extremists, but they perceive the Le Pen vote as an extremist vote.
Richard: So the Le Pen name is just a poison brand. This was, I think, the promise the Right saw in Zemmour, and maybe the reason why Zemmour might have a better future in politics.
Philippe: This is interesting. You’re right, this was the premise, and he was right about this. The Le Pen name is a poison pill. I joked after the first round, five minutes after the first round I made a Tweet where I said, what you need to know about the second round of the French election is that it’s a contest between two people, and at the end, the one whose name is not Le Pen wins [laughter]. This is true. So Zemmour’s calculation was that we need to get rid of Le Pen and the National Front because the anti-immigration cause will never win as long as it’s represented by this party, and even more so by someone called Le Pen. And he was right about this, he was absolutely right.
Now, one thing I was actually wrong about in that piece I wrote for CSPI in December… At the time I agreed with his calculation that he could do better. But sometime in January, I said if he made it to the second round, conditional on making it to the second round, I gave him something like a 30% chance I think of winning the second round. And now I realize he also had no chance of winning the second round. Because the propaganda campaign against him at the end of last year was something I had not seen since the time of Marine Le Pen’s father. And it was really damaging, they really hurt him badly. I don’t think it would have prevented him necessarily from reaching the second round, because like I said, without the war I think he would have been able to do that. But I think he would have had no chance in the second round because they managed to stick on him this label of an extremist. And whilst you have this label, you cannot win the second round of a French presidential election. It’s impossible, at least for now.
It may change in 15 years because, it’s pretty striking, when you look at the polls about the second round, and you look at Le Pen’s score by age group, one of the most striking things is she is almost neck and neck with Macron among people in the 35-50 age group. And that’s my generation, I’m 37. And so I’m in the generation of people who were in the streets in 2002 when Le Pen the elder – I mean I wasn’t in the street but people in my generation were – they were in the streets in 2002 when her father, it was the first time her father and the National Front reached the second round. It was a huge shock. There were those huge protests, protests that don’t exist in the US, something that was absolutely gigantic. So those people who voted at the time massively against Le Pen, and now she’s neck and neck, it was Le Pen the father at the time, his daughter is neck and neck with Macron in this cohort.
Of course people age, and as they age they become more right wing. But this doesn’t even explain most of the effect here. There is actually a cohort effect here. People of the same age in 2002 also voted massively against Le Pen. So there is really something that is changing here. It’s very possible that in 15 years things will be very different. 15 years is a long time.
Richard: So in 2020, it’s interesting because the age gradient in the US, it wasn’t as simple as older people like Trump. Because the old people were polling a little bit better for Biden. I think I saw polls where he was doing best with 65+. And the youngest people were also very pro-Biden. And then the middle, that same sort of age group, 35-50, say Generation X age group, they were probably the most pro-Trump, or close to the most pro-Trump. [note: polls showed Biden doing better than Clinton had with the oldest voters, but his best demographic was still the youngest voters. Exit polls however showed Trump in the end doing significantly better than earlier polls predicted with those 65 and over.]
The old people thing is interesting because I think they get a lot of their news from TV. I just saw some poll in the US about Russia versus Ukraine, and the old people were the most hawkish about supporting Ukraine against Russia by a lot. And my theory of this, some people say they’re just nostalgic for the Cold War. I don’t know if that’s true. I think it’s just that they watch a lot of TV, they don’t get a lot of internet, and TV is completely representing the establishment foreign policy. While if you go on Twitter or you go somewhere else, Facebook, it’s more balanced. Even though Twitter can be crazy on the Russia-Ukraine thing, it’s not like TV. TV is just completely in line with the American foreign policy establishment.
So yeah, maybe there’s something else going on here. Maybe as people are getting older, those generations who get their news from the TV, they die off. The media might have less control as we move to a world where most of us who just grew up with the internet and the internet is most of what we interact with as far as getting our news, we become everybody. And then the establishment doesn’t really have as much advantage anymore. Does that make sense to you?
Philippe: Yeah, I think something like that may be going on. There are two main reasons why, in my opinion, Le Pen does so poorly among older people. I mentioned both of them earlier, but I think it’s useful here to repeat that. One of them is that, as I said before, they’re really scared of her economic policies because they’re scared of the instability it might create and as pensioners, instability is the last thing they want. They’re pretty good the way they are. That’s one reason.
Another reason is that those are the people who watch TV. All of their information comes from TV, and they’ve been watching TV for decades. So it’s been bashed into their heads that Le Pen is the devil. And they really trust that stuff, or even if they don’t trust it that much, which given how low trust in media is in France, even those guys probably don’t trust it that much, but it doesn’t matter. You may not trust it, but if you’re exposed to it constantly, it still has an effect on what you think whether you realize it or not.
People of my generation, I’m an older millennial, for my cohort Le Pen is neck and neck with Macron. I don’t even remember the last time I watched TV, but when I go to my parents’, the TV is constantly on, it’s a completely different world. And people who are younger, the Gen Z generation, I think it’s even more true. They get even more of their information… I don’t think they get much information, but to the extent they do it’s from the internet. And if you look at the polls, Le Pen does even better among those guys. That’s the really freaky thing from an American perspective. The far-right candidate actually does even better among the younger people. It seems like a paradox and completely different, but actually you’re right. In a way even though the end result is very different the mechanism is the same. It’s TV versus the internet.
The Le Pen Curse
Richard: Is Le Pen going to be around for 30 more years, advancing to the second round and then losing?
Philippe: You know Le Pen, I think she doesn’t like politics. I think she will be around next time again, which to me is a real tragedy here. She’s going to be around. But my theory of Le Pen, which is based on talking to people in her entourage – so this actually has some pretty solid grounds, I’m not just doing wild conjectures here – Le Pen doesn’t like politics the way her father did. Her father was a political animal. He loved this stuff, he really lived for this. And she’s not like this. She doesn’t love this, she’d be much happier if she could be a lawyer again probably. But she can’t, she’s burnt.
Even more importantly, if it were just her I think she would stop, she would quit politics. But what you have to understand is that a lot of people around her, some of her advisors, some people in her party, literally depend on her running to make a living. Because those are people who have absolutely no skills whatsoever. This party, you have to understand, is a cult basically. It’s run like a cult. It’s like a small family company where the family makes all the decisions. But around the boss, you have this whole ecosystem of people who have no skills whatsoever, they’re pretty stupid people. They can’t do anything else, at least they can’t do anything else and maintain the standard of life they have now. So she’s under a lot of pressure from those guys not to quit. Because if she quits it’s not just her, she’ll be fine. She’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but she’s not stupid. Those guys really are, and they depend on her, so they put her under a lot of pressure not to quit. So you have this situation which is really bad for the country and for the Right…
One of the reasons I really liked Zemmour’s candidacy, the main reason, is that I wanted to break this curse. We need to find a way to get rid of Le Pen and the National Front. Because it’s a guarantee, as long as those guys are the opposition, that centrists like Macron will always win. But the problem is that it’s not going to happen, at least not this time, because like I said, Zemmour wasn’t going to win the second round. But he didn’t need to win the second round to destroy the National Front, the party of Le Pen. He just needed to beat her in the first round. This would have been the end of her party, it would have been enough. But it didn’t happen, so she’s going to be around again even though she doesn’t really want to. That’s the irony of this whole thing. She doesn’t really want to and she’s screwing the Right, but she’s going to do it anyway because there’s too many people around her who depend on her to live. So they’re going to keep making sure she stays in the game, even though she doesn’t really want to be in the game.
While Philippe has some sharp analysis, it feels like both of you still trying to explain away the reality a bit.
--Treating the public's evaluation of Zemmour/Le Pen as the product part of some propaganda campaign, as opposed to...a reasonable assessment of the statements and public lives of the two of them.
--Talking about the prospects for a Le Pen/Zemmour-type candidate, while mostly ignoring that Macron has succeeded by managing to claim the center. This is particularly relevant for the polarization discussion.
"The French public opinion has been for years, in fact for decades, very strongly opposed to immigration."
And yet the winning candidate somehow never reflects this strong preference of the electorate. Funny how I never see any of the supposed defenders of democracy take an interest in this disconnect.