How Fear of Frexit Helped Macron Win the French Presidential Election
NEW Text Analytics PollTM Shows a Trump-Style Le Pen Upset May Have Been Averted by Overwhelming Opposition to a Frexit
Last week on this blog, I reported findings from a Text Analytics Poll™ of 3,000 French citizens showing that Marine Le Pen’s positioning going into the runoff looked remarkably similar to that of another recent underdog candidate, Donald Trump, just days before his stunning U.S. election upset.
Indeed, a similar set of circumstances appeared to be in play, as noted by the New York Times in an article on Election Day: “Populist anger at the political establishment; economic insecurity among middle class voters; public alienation toward mainstream political parties; rising resentment toward immigrants.”
Yet on Sunday, the French people elected Emmanuel Macron president over Le Pen by about 66/34. So why wasn’t the race closer?
The answer may be in data we collected from French and British respondents, which shows that the prospect of a Le Pen “Frexit” probably figured highly in Macron’s victory.
Positioning: Voting Against a Candidate
Our data in the French presidential poll were eerily reminiscent of data we collected prior to the U.S. election, which suggested a victory may not so much amount to an endorsement of one candidate as a rejection of the other.
Our analysis showed that first and foremost, the French associated Le Pen with bigotry and hatemongering, but text analysis also showed that among the French she was strongly positioned around immigration reform and putting France first—a platform that worked effectively for Trump, who had also been labeled a bigot in the minds of many Americans. In fact, the perception of Trump as a bigot was only slightly lower among Americans than the perception of Le Pen as a bigot among the French (11% vs 15%, respectively).
In contrast, respondents most frequently associated Macron with “liberalism”—meaning economic liberalism favoring free markets—followed by capitalism, neither of which is necessarily an asset in terms of positioning in French politics, particularly for a wealthy investment banker at a time when job security is a major concern among middleclass voters.
But the main platform issue that people associated with Macron—which trailed just behind people’s view of him as a proponent of free markets/capitalism—was Europe/EU, in stark contrast to Le Pen, who was well known to strongly favor an EU “Frexit.” The EU is also synonymous with the free movement of commerce and people, which, of course, stands in contrast to the dual protectionist/anti-immigration platform championed by Le Pen.
This, naturally, begged the question: How important is EU membership to the French population?
If the mood of the French electorate were anything like that of British Brexit voters, then favoring EU membership could be a liability. So just days ahead of the election we ran a second Text Analytics Poll—once again a single question—only this time we polled 3000 voters each in France and the UK:
- “What does the European Union mean to you?” (or “Qu’est ce que l’Union Européenne représente pour vous?” in French).
EU Membership Means “Hope”
It’s worth noting that turnout for this election was reportedly the lowest in 36 years. These were presumably voters who never would’ve cast a ballot for Le Pen, but who also could not be mobilized for Macron. In short, they were Macron’s to lose.
This new poll data helps explain why, in spite of inspiring lackluster confidence and support from anti-Le Pen voters, Macron nonetheless won the election by a sizable margin.
While a significant number of the French tell us the EU means nothing to them, this is significantly lower than the Brits who say so.
Conversely, the French are more than five times as likely as Brits to say the EU means “Everything/A Lot” to them. The French are also far less likely than their UK counterparts to criticize the EU for corruption, wastefulness and such.
Instead, the French are extremely optimistic about the EU, with many indicating it provides “future hope” and keeps them out of wars and at “Peace” —something Brits are more likely to attribute to NATO.
High Positive Emotions for EU
Ultimately, emotions are what really drive behavior, and in the end, the French electorate’s highly positive emotional disposition toward the EU—notably their “Anticipation” and hopefulness—may have countered Macron’s relatively weak positioning in this election.
I read some responses to our original analysis that I’d characterize as emotionally overwrought. I understand that this is an occupational hazard for anyone conducting political opinion research, but our duty is to present and report objectively what the data tells us—even if what we’re seeing in the data isn’t necessarily pleasant.
The job of these polls was to assess the candidates’ brand positioning in the minds of voters, and to review the potential opportunities and threats in the “marketplace” as we would for any brand.
I want to stress that I am not discounting people’s distaste for Marine Le Pen’s perceived bigotry as being a key factor behind her loss in this election, but I’ll emphasize again that it was only slightly higher (15% vs 11%) than what we saw for Donald Trump, who, as you know, is now the President of the United States.
And at the end of the day, the hard truth is that more than a third of those who voted in this election voted for a right-wing nationalist—a candidate whose background makes Donald Trump look like a civil rights activist by comparison. Moreover, 25% of the electorate were not sufficiently affronted by Madame Le Pen’s politics to at least vote against her by voting for Macron; instead, they just abstained.
Like many people, I am relieved by the outcome of this election, but it seems clear from the positioning of both candidates—as reported by French citizens, unaided, in their own words—and the data on EU membership from our second poll that the French people did not simply reject Marine Le Pen because she is positioned as a racist/hatemonger; she was on the wrong side of Frexit.
*Note: n=3,000 responses were collected via Google Surveys 3/3-5/5 2017. Google Surveys allow researchers to reach a validated French General Population Representative sample by intercepting people attempting to access high-quality online content or who have downloaded the Google Opinion Rewards mobile app. Results are +/- 2.51% accurate at the 95% confidence interval.
About Tom H. C. Anderson
Tom H. C. Anderson is the founder and managing partner of OdinText, a venture-backed firm based in Stamford, CT whose eponymous, patented SAS platform is used by Fortune 500 companies like Disney, Coca-Cola and Shell Oil to mine insights from complex, unstructured and mixed data. A recognized authority and pioneer in the field of text analytics with more than two decades of experience in market research, Anderson is the recipient of numerous awards for innovation from industry associations such as CASRO, ESOMAR and the ARF. He was named one of the “Four under 40” market research leaders by the American Marketing Association in 2010. He tweets under the handle @tomhcanderson.