The polls got it right in France. They showed a very close race among the top four candidates for one of the two spots in the runoff for president two weeks hence—and it was a very close race. The front runner, Emanuel Macron, a former minister in President François Hollande's Socialist government, running on a platform of cutting government spending and remaining in the European Union, got 24 percent. In second place, with 21 percent, was Marine Le Pen of the National Front. Just out of the running, with 20 percent, was François Fillon, of the Republicans, the party of former Presidents Nicholas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac. In fourth place, also with 20 percent, was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a left-winger who called for exit from the EU and a confiscatory (that's 100 percent) tax on certain high earners. Far behind in fifth, with 6 percent, was Benoît Hamon, of the Socialist party, whose candidates held the presidency in 1981-95 and since 2012.
This is just about the best result one could have hoped for. Polling shows Macron defeating Le Pen in the runoff with 60 percent or more, and there's no reason to believe that's wrong: Macron is the next president of France. And while the 39-year-old enarque (graduate of the elite Ecole National d'Administation) and former Rothschild banker is an unknown quantity and will almost certainly have nothing like a party majority in the legislative branch, he's not going to pull France out of the EU (as Le Pen and Mélenchon promised to) or cozy up to Russia (as Le Pen and Fillon seemed inclined to) or vastly increased an already overlarge and underperforming government (as Mélenchon and Hamon would try to do). A Le Pen-Mélenchon runoff would have given France the nightmare choice of two candidates who could have described each other, hyperbolically but not totally without basis, as a communist and a fascist.
But the sigh of relief inspired by my first look at the results was followed by some frowns of consternation when I started analyzing them. Here are some reasons why:
Judging from exit polling, there was a huge difference among age groups, with a sharp break at age 60 (the usual retirement age in France), with younger voters making some unnerving choices. The combined vote for Le Pen and Mélenchon (anti-EU, pro-Russia, pro-increased-spending, possibly authoritarian) was 41 percent, and Mélenchon's refusal to endorse Macron in the runoff (as Fillion and Hamon did) suggests that many of his votes, perhaps the bulk of them, will go to her in the runoff. There's a lot of them especially by age, as shown by this comparison of the percentages for those two compared with the percentages for the two traditional party nominees, Fillon and Hamon.
FRANCE 18-24 25-34 35-49 50-59 60-69 70+
LePen+Mélenchon 41 51 48 51 48 34 19
Fillon+ 26 19 16 18 19 32 48
There also seems to be unnervingly low support for candidates suggesting rolling back government spending (Macron, Fillon) versus those favoring more (Mélenchon, Hamon) among younger voters.
Macron+Fillon 44 27 36 32 34 53 72
Mélenchon+Hamon 26 40 32 29 27 20 12
As one who looked favorably on British voters' decision for Brexit—leaving the European Union—I regard the possibility of Frexit with much more trepidation. Britain was a (relative) latecomer to the EU, whose commercial heritage and common law were always a bad fit with Europe, as Charles de Gaulle recognized when he voted British entry into what was then the Common Market in 1963. France, in contrast, was a founding member and one with an impeccably Continental heritage. The EU will survive Brexit. It's not clear that it could survive Frexit. With that in mind, look at the different age groups' choices of pro-EU candidates (Macron, Fillon, Hamon) and anti-EU (Le Pen, Mélenchon)
Macron+Fillon+Hamon 50 37 44 39 40 58 75
LePen+Mélenchon 41 51 48 51 48 34 19
So France will get a president who at least campaigned as a non-authoritarian, in favor of restraining government and backing French membership in the EU. But on all three of those dimensions, majorities or pluralities of French voters under 60 took the other side. Now it's true that voters' attitudes don't remain fixed as they age, and that opinions can change in response to events. But even so, these numbers leave me with uneasiness about what French voters may choose in the future, as the current 60-plus voters fade from the scene.
And in this case the margins were pretty small. Mélenchon missed making the runoff by just 618,603 votes of 36,058,812 cast, just less than 3 percent. And the polls would not have to have been very far off to have given us the nightmare of a Le Pen-Mélenchon runoff. The great francophiles of American's Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were not conventionally religious men, and the people (or at least the non-Muslim people) of France tend not to be very religious. But looking over these numbers, I wonder if Franklin and Jefferson were not looking down from somewhere, overlooking the land of their friend Lafayette and giving the election results a little prod in a healthy direction. But will that be enough in the long run?