If the past 12 months have taught us anything it is that the unlikely can happen, and that is as true in France as in Britain or the US.
After the success of Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the French presidential elections, markets around the world rallied strongly. The centrist candidate who has pledged to radically reform the French economy took 23.8% of the vote, and is predicted to win the final round on 7 May with support from 60% of the electorate. But a Macron victory should not be taken for granted.
His rival Marine Le Pen represents the extreme right but her politics should not affect our judgement. She polled 21.5% in the first round, ensuring neither of France’s two big parties made it through to the second round.
François Fillon, the Republican candidate, took 19.9% and Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, just 6.4%. The strong showing of left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon, with 19.6%, should give everyone pause for reflection. Votes for Macron, Fillon, and Hamon collectively add up to just 50.1%. Le Pen plus Melenchon come to 41.1%.
The crucial difference between the two rivals is that Macron does not have a political party of any size. His En Marche! is something he founded and leads. Indeed one could say that he became a leader first and then recruited a party. His members are mainly young metropolitans. Le Pen on the other hand has a party with a country-wide organisation. The National Front has fought many elections and will have prepared for the second round.
As Trump’s victory showed, it is important not to be influenced by personal feelings when trying to predict the outcome of votes. What happened in the US and the UK is not unthinkable in France. Many Britons and Americans who were on the ‘right’ side did not turn up to vote. The young, in particular, are notoriously fickle at election time. Add to that the rosy, nearly unanimous media support for one candidate, which can make voters complacent, and it’s not impossible to see Macron as the Hillary Clinton of this election.
Lastly let us come to policies. Macron wants to take France in the direction of a more liberal, market-friendly economy. This may please the markets but not the people. The outgoing President François Hollande attempted to lengthen the working week from the present 35 hours but was defeated by the trade unions. And they were supposed to be his friends.
Macron is from the establishment: a banker and a former economy minister with a pro-Europe mindset. He will be seen as a young elitist candidate. Le Pen will chime with the idea of French pride, reluctance to reform and a tendency to blame outsiders for France’s problems rather than impose any hardship. She is not metropolitan and the majority of French are not either.
It would be folly to predict but remember: just because you wish it does not mean it will happen.
Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chairman of the OMFIF Advisers Network. He is author of Trump: The First One Hundred Days, which was published on Saturday by OMFIF Press.