Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 10 January 2017

The French election and two-dimensional politics

Unless something very surprising happens, the French presidential election will be between Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Fran├žois Fillon, who recently won the primaries for a collection of parties (essentially the right wing republican party). Fillon’s platform was extremely neoliberal. As Renee Buhr describes here:
“His policy proposals largely indicate a small government, low taxation and free market approach to economic policy, while his campaign rhetoric takes aim at the usual ‘boogeymen’ cited by liberal politicians – government regulations, public expenditures, high taxes and public sector institutions and employees.“

This makes we worried that Le Pen will win.

If you see politics as all about a left/right axis, my concern makes no sense. Choosing someone whose economic policy is very much to the right of the centre/right parties should eat into Le Pen’s support, while those on the left will vote (reluctantly) for the lesser of the two right wing parties. However this one dimensional view is far too simplistic, and perhaps fatally so in this case.

To illustrate why, I want to briefly look at a piece by Jonathan Wheatley, which uses UK politics before the 2015 election. A sample were asked their views on 30 different policy issues. A technique was then used to find a pattern in the responses. The first interesting result was that the strongest pattern was two dimensional: there seem to be two common factors underlying these responses. To quote:
“The first is an economic dimension, drawing on issues such as the mansion tax, the bedroom tax, and privatisation of the NHS. The second is a cultural dimension, drawing on issues such as EU membership, immigration, same-sex marriage and English Votes for English Laws.”

We could say the cultural dimension was about identity, varying from communitarian to cosmopolitan views. He then looks at the political party people supported. Here is the result:

On the cultural dimension, party supporters are where you would expect. But on economic issues UKIP supporters are less rather than more right wing than Conservative party supporters.

I know of no similar analysis that looks at French voters, but this does not matter for the point I want to make. Suppose we use the same diagram to represent a political party's policy position. In that case the area occupied by UKIP in the diagram above does seem to correspond to Front National policies. Their position on the identity axis is certainly well to the south of other parties, but their position on economic issues is far from neoliberal. In choosing who to vote for, the voter will position themselves on the diagram, and look for the party that is closer to them in this two dimensional space. (Of course we cannot use the diagram to actually measure distance, as the implicit weighting between the two aspects is arbitrary, and may not correspond to that of the voter. But the conceptual argument still works.)    

From this two dimensional perspective, choosing a candidate to oppose Le Pen who is pretty right win in economic terms does nothing to capture Front National voters. But more seriously, it risks losing the support of left wing voters. While they may dislike Le Pen because of her stance on immigration and other identity issues, Le Pen is more acceptable in terms of economic policies than a very neoliberal candidate.


  1. “The Blackshirt Movement is the organised effort of the younger generation to break the stranglehold which senile politicians have so long maintained on our affairs.”

    (Daily Mail, 15th January 1934)

    “The policy of Fascism is what you may well call Ultramontane Conservatism. It takes many of the tenets of our own party and pushes them to a conclusion which, if given effect to, would, I believe, be disastrous to our country.”

    (Stanley Baldwin, 18 June 1934, Daily Telegraph)

    Isn't it fortunate that the majority of baby boomers who are voting for these conservative political parties in the UK, US, and France have such hatred for the younger generations beneath them!

  2. It's worse than you suggest. The diagram suggests equal numbers of voters for each party. Your analysis is correct but not only are views two-dimensional, voters preferences are also visibly shifting away from the cosmopolitan. Put differently, the relative saliency of the vertical access is now stronger than that for the horizontal access.

    Another reason why Le Pen will win.

  3. Many people just don't understand the 'protest' vote, where people are sometimes saying "don't forget me, I have a vote". When voters are presented with poor options then certain individual issues will take prominence. Sometimes that might be where someone threatens to resign if they lose, or it could be about a particular policy stance (say on TTIP), but then again it could just be a vote against the candidate that is seen as the 'most establishment'.

  4. This analysis would explain the popularity of the SNP - strong on identity but centre-left on economic and social policy. Immigration, though, where the SNP is in favour for broadly economic reasons, will make it less appealing for some voters.
    To that extent, Scotland has had its anti-establishment, anti- elite, insurgent (call it what you will) party for quite some time. Being in government in Scotland for 10 years has not lose end that appeal significantly because the economic and social policy elements of its appeal have distinguished it from both New Labour (as was) and the Conservatives.

  5. Hi Simon,
    I remember oh so well that moment in May 81 when we heard (while in the kitchen in Sheffield) that Mitterand had won. I helped the London branch of the PS in 87 (France has some overseas parliamentary seats) and have been an active PS member since moving there in 88. I was at Hollande's first campaign rally in April 2011, a month before the DSK episode.He was at 3% in the polls. On Sunday I was at Valls' first campaign rally for the Left primaries. I hope he wins. However the surprise this time(French 5th Republic presidential elections often bring surprises ) is the Trump/medie hype/populist/social media phenomenon of Macron, the young ex-minister who, let's say, betrayed his master. He's quietly attracting thousands to rallies,( like Bernie did) people I know, even socialists, are listening to him. People like him, he communicates well. Is he centre-left? centre right? he's pro-europe, not against public services and public employees but rather wants them to evolve.
    As you say Le Pen is less right wing in economic terms.She's outright protectioninst, anti-Schengen, for border controls, wants to lock up or throw out terrorist sympathisers. Former left voters have been listening to her for the last few years and former Communist and Socialist bastions have fallen to the FN.
    I can't see 50% voting Le Pen against Fillon who's not as rightwing as he pretended to be in order to win the Right primary.
    The big question in France is which two get into the second round.
    Maybe Le Pen will come third.
    The left is divided but people know that and will vote tactically.
    I hope Valls' campaign takes off but I honestly feel that Macron is perceived by more and more people as a reformer,a new face, a breath of fresh air and his bubble hasn't burst.....yet.
    So if Macron faces Fillon or Le Pen in the second round he will win easily. If he wins in May, what happens in the parliamentary elections in June? He doesn't have a party, just a social-media movement/fan club? Will the socialists support him? Probably. We all like winners.
    Steve Mound

    1. Valls is the worst thing that ever happened to French Socialism. In fact he isn't left wing at all, he is a right wing centrist.

      How in the World has humanity gotten to this place where they ACTUALLY Think that socialism is Actually an option?
      Stop letting your governments run your economies and, Hence, YOUR LIVES.....and Wake Up to FREEDOM!
      Marine Le Pen is the DOOR....YOU have to make the choice to WALK THRU it!

  6. Paul Krugman is in big trouble.

    With his IS-LM framework nonsense

    When the White House Changes Party, Do Economists Change Their Tune on Budget Deficits? – by Brett Barkely, studied “selected economists to see whether their tune on deficits changes when the party holding the White House changes”.

    He examined the writings of “17 prominent economists” spread across the political divide. They were all variously “U.S. recipients of the John Bates Clark Award … U.S. recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics … members past and present of the Council of Economic Advisers”.

    He conducted a textual analysis from 1981 to the end of 2009 (5 Presidencies) and sought to isolate comments made about fiscal deficits by these economists.

    He then evaluated “whether each economist changed his or her position on the budget deficit” when the party of the President changes.

    At the top of his list was Paul Krugman (99 unique commentaries about fiscal deficits) and the only economist of the 17 to “significantly” change his tune between political regimes.

    This analysis wasn’t the first time Paul Krugman had been accused of shifting position. A previous analysis – Left Out: A Critique of Paul Krugman Based on a Comprehensive Account of His New York Times Columns, 1997 through 2006 – found that in his 654 “New York Times columns 1997 through 2006”:

    The pattern of policy positions and arguments do not square with his purported concern for general prosperity and the interests of the poor.

    1. Er... no. Krugman said deficits good at zero lower bound. His position's been consistent with that.

    2. See Krugman's blog entry "The Shock of the Normal" at
      Different economic conditions require different policy responses.

    3. The other explanation is that Republican administrations misuse deficits and Democratic presidents act responsibly. Crazy idea I know.

    4. But if you read the link Bill Mitchell explains why none of his policy responses make any sense.

      Feel free to Debunk what Bill says ?

  7. “His policy proposals largely indicate a small government, low taxation and free market approach to economic policy, while his campaign rhetoric takes aim at the usual ‘boogeymen’ cited by liberal politicians – government regulations, public expenditures, high taxes and public sector institutions and employees.“

    The purpose of a candidate's policy proposals is to get elected. Once elected, the proposals can and will be ditched, especially the difficult, controversial and radical ones.

    I have been observing French elections for over thirty years and cannot recall any incumbent president substantially implementing his campaign proposals.

    As for the danger of Le Pen winning, France is a country run by and for the benefit of the establishment. Its two rounds electoral system with a gap of 14 days between votes affords the establishment the opportunity to browbeat the electorate should it look like electing an anti-establishment figure. This was clearly demonstrated in the 2002 election when J.M. Le Pen was defeated by a large margin in the second round, having secured 16.86% of the vote in the first round. The French people were urged to "vote for the crook (Chirac), not the fascist."

  8. Typo: should be Marine Le Pen, Marie is her father (Jean-Marie Le Pen).

    1. Go Marine Le Pen!!!!!
      I'm an American, so I can't vote, but I would LOVE to see Le Pen win!!!!
      Yay for sovereignty!
      Yay for the France leaving the euro in the dust!
      Yay for Nationalism!
      Yay for FREEDOM!!!!!

  9. So true.

    The overlap between the cosmopolitan vote and the blue collar socialist vote was demonstrably smaller than anticipated in the Brexit (& US) votes. This is the outcome of years of neglect (by the cosmopolitan leadership of the left) for the bread and butter issues of vital concern to their core constituency. Their core vote was cynically banked by the Blair's & Hollandes with priority being given instead to "triangulation", business friendly policy and (in Hollande's case) a demented adherence to euro group "rules" which repressed French demand, output and employment.

    A substantial portion of the French blue collar vote has already migrated to the FN as has much (if not most) of the under 25 vote (historically another bankable constituency for the socialists).

    The only real challenge to Le Pen posed by Fillon will be in the nationalist rhetoric. Voters are much more patriotic than their elites....

  10. Marine Le Pen will not win the French election.

    Leaving aside the dimensions of politics (btw there are probably more than two in France), just consider the arithmetics of the vote. In the first-round, Le Pen will get at best 10-11 millions votes, based on current voting intentions.

    Assuming she's in the run-off, than to win in the secound-round, she will need an additional 8 millions votes, to reach the 50% threshold. But she has no policial allies in the French political system, quite the contrary.

    Her only path to victory rests on a complete collapse of the turnout ratio, from around 80%, which is standard,to 50% or lower. This is pure nonsense. In all French elections but one (1969), the turnout ratio has always increased between the two rounds of the presidential election.

    1. Yea!!! BUT SHE SHOULD WIN!

      She's Bringin FREEDOM BACK!...
      These F$&@ING Commies dunno how to act....
      This Global bullshit is so damn Whack!....
      Take it to the bridge!

  11. What's mainly macroeconomic here?

    1. If I only wrote about macro it wouldn't be 'mainly', would it.

    2. Mainly Macro12 January 2017 at 02:13

      A wonderful excuse! This started out as an agreeably written -if not always correct - blog on macroeconomic subjects, but it has degenerated into an instrument to vent your political opinions that by now are only too foreseeable.

  12. This point has sort of been made above, but at the time of writing the situation is not quite as concrete as you suggest. Macron has been polling well and if the PS chooses Montebourg and Bayrou doesn't stand, he is undoubtedly in with a shot of the second round and hence the Presidency. That said, his bubble is a bubble, it may burst, it's only polling and rallies, etc etc, but writing about the Presidential election in early January he shouldn't be ruled out.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.