This Week in the Mayonnaise Clinic, Part 2: So, How About That French Election?
It wasn't that close!
Happy Thursday, and thanks for all your feedback on yesterday’s post about Twitter under Elon Musk. A couple of programming notes: There will be a paid-subscribers-only newsletter about cocktails coming out tomorrow (in conjunction with this week’s podcast about cocktails) so if you want to get that, mash this button. I’ll be back in everyone else’s inbox next Tuesday.
Now, the mayo. Arjune Bose asks:
I saw your tweet about the French election result, and it got me thinking about why the margins in that run-off style election would be so large.
I'd expect that in a one-on-one runoff, both candidates should get close to half the vote, as candidates move closer to the center to grab the swingable vote. Is the fact that Marine Le Pen only won 41.4% a showing that she and the right are just terrible at elections?
Arjune, I appreciate you for standing out by asking how Le Pen failed to win more votes, rather than expressing shock at how many votes she got. Certainly, by US election standards, this outcome was a landslide. She lost quite badly!
I would say two things. One has to do with specific idiosyncrasies of the French presidential election system, where all candidates run in a single primary and the top two proceed to a runoff. In the runoff, the best strategy is to be closer to the median voter than your opponent is. But in the primary, running all the way to the middle doesn’t necessarily work — especially when Emmanuel Macron is already there, leading the race for votes from the center. You need to stake out a large enough swathe of the political spectrum to place in the top two, and you might find that more easily on the right or the left.
The other point is maybe more obvious: She is Marine Le Pen. How far toward the center could she possibly have moved? She already moved a long, long way toward the political center — expelling her own father from the political party he founded on grounds of extremism, dropping her calls to leave the European Union, urging a reduction in the retirement age and getting comfortably to Macron’s left on certain economic issues — which is a key reason she was able to get 41% of the runoff vote when her father managed only 18% in 2002. I’m not sure it would have been convincing if she tried to shift even more sharply.
I had a good conversation about the French election and what it portends for European and American politics on this week’s episode of the Bulwark’s Beg To Differ podcast, where I was guest-hosting on behalf of Mona Charen. (The episode should come out on Friday.) One of my main take-aways for the US is to note that yelling “extreme!” about a politician only works if voters actually perceive that politician as quite extreme. When an extreme personality takes more moderate positions — as Trump did when he abandoned GOP calls for Social Security cuts and gay marriage bans — voters may take notice. Part of how Macron held off Le Pen despite her reduced extremism was through his own ideological shifts, becoming significantly more hawkish on immigration (though he also, as Matt Yglesias notes, had a politically damaging detour into a campaign for entitlement cuts).
As always, I would encourage Democrats who are worried about the appeal of right-wing extremism to devote a little less of their mental energy to talking about how extreme Republican politicians are (voters have heard your spiel on this) and a little more to considering what they’re doing that might make voters choose an extremist over them.
Tom Hanes asks:
Do you have a theory why the FDA “expert panels” aren't consulting with a marketing team? Why are their personal social psychology intuitions driving policy, often contradicting the robust public messaging apparatus in the White House? On boosters/mask quality/child vaccines, they say they're optimizing for messaging, but seem to be shooting from the hip. Do they not have a firm on retainer?