Monday, March 13, 2017

Political Debate and Debates

Yesterday I put the finishing touches on the draft of an article I've been writing about the elections. I ponder at some length the strange death of French social democracy as it has evolved since World War II and its still stranger rebirth as Macronism.

Then I woke up and listened to a podcast of Le Grand Rendez-vous d'Europe 1, in which a series of economists defended the programs of the five leading candidates, and I realized how surreal the political debate has become and how bewildering it must seem to people who do not follow politics with any persistence.

The Grand Rendez-vous consisted essentially of confrontations between the interviewers, who picked out some aspect of each candidate's program--Hamon's basic income, Macron's expanded unemployment benefits, Le Pen's euro exit and franc devaluation, and the economists, who were challenged to explain how some supposedly related set of numbers added up. There was absolutely no coherence to the discussion, no attempt to situate the challenged figures in a more comprehensive vision of the economy, no effort to look beyond a time horizon a year or two out to ask what kind of world each candidate envisioned a generation down the road. In short, it was all noise.

And no doubt it is this pattern of noise-making that will continue as we move into the final sequence of the campaign. There is nothing more to say about Fillon's scandals, so the media will have to start examining the candidates' programs, but radio and TV are equipped to do so only in the Gatling gun style that is enforced by the assumption that the attention span of the audience is limited to ten minutes if not two. So question follows hard upon question, and candidates and their surrogates must squeeze twice the normal number of words into the time allotted. With no time to think, only pre-masticated answers can be regurgitated, and the audience is impressed more by the fluency of the answers than by their adequacy.

Yet as Thierry Mandon observed this morning on RTL, this is a year in which voter volatility is the most salient fact about the electorate. Something like 50% of the French have yet to settle firmly on one candidate or another. Hence the election is likely to be decided in the final few weeks, as the electorate finally tunes in and forms its hasty impression on the basis of the kinds of superficial judgments encouraged by the format described above. Both the Brexit and Trump votes seem to have solidified in the final weeks of the campaign, not before. The French election may well follow the same pattern.

In France, the most important question for the undecided is how to voter utile, and this of course depends not on what each voter thinks but rather on what each voter thinks other voters will think. For the moment the anti-Le Pen vote seems to be gravitating toward Macron, but if he falters in debate, where he is untested, there could be a panicked flight to an alternative. The polls could swing wildly in the weeks ahead, and what will emerge from the ensuing confusion is impossible to predict. I therefore don't believe that one can place much confidence in the polls. And since the polls are predicting that Le Pen will lose, this is a disturbing state of affairs. I already sense a certain complacency that the danger is past, and this is of course a sure sign that it isn't.


bert said...

bernard said...

for anyone interested, there is a pretty good wikipedia agregation page of essentially all polls published (it links directly to the polling results):'%C3%A9lection_pr%C3%A9sidentielle_fran%C3%A7aise_de_2017

taking a look at the last 5 polls reported:
- depending on the poll, between 72% and 81% are somewhat or strongly interested in the election, ie. this is business as usual as far as elections go;
- in BVA, out of a 100 certain of going to vote, 10 would not say for whom, 31 could still change their mind
- in Opinionway, out of 100, 13 would not say for whom, and depending on the candidate, 6 to 18% of his/her supporters could still easily change their mind
- in Harris interactive, does not report how many did not say for whom they would vote, only reported the % sure of their choice for each candidate (from 55% to 81% depending on candidates, which I translate into about 30% overall could still change their view)
- in IFOP Fiducial, 37% can still change their mind (a typical U-shaped curve as we go from extreme left to extreme right, classic in politics). 64% are very sure of going to vote.
in Elabe, 59% are very sure of going to vote. 39% could still change their mind as opposed to being very sure of ther choice.

So my question is, where does your 50% figure come from? For me, I do not see any very substantial difference with past elections, except for the apparition of the new kid on the block, where almost by definition potential electors have not gone from ignorance to absolute conviction in 3 months.

Art Goldhammer said...

The 50% figure was cited by Thierry Mandon in a radio interview on RTL this morning. I didn't verify it. You may be right that it's high. Perhaps he was referring to uncertainty in Macron's support base.

Art Goldhammer said...

But looking at the Wikipedia page you cite, Cevipof reports 47% pourrait changer d'avis and BVA 46%.

Anonymous said...

A "Keynesian beauty contest' only makes sense in an environment where a voter's "skin in the game" is nil, or minimal. It is a luxury France's people cannot afford, with an unemployment rate for 18-25 year olds of 40%. The "beauty contest" and indulgence in the "noise" are luxuries to someone who's already getting his vegetables from a "potager", to save money. Americans, living in a richer country, can indulge in the privilege of voting against policies and points of view they despise --and last year, did. The French, of course, can intellectualize the election, but the stakes are too high. The difficulties of pollsters are their difficulties, not the voters'. As in the U.S. election, those asked about whom they would vote for are probably pulling their punches. So, "yes", Le Pen could have a much stronger level of support in France than the polls show, as a proportion of those who would vote for her may be (like a significant percentage of Trump voters) feigning in responding to pollsters' inquiries.
At the beginning of this year 2017, there was a prediction made in the Financial Times by a French journalist regarding the election. "Marine Le Pen will not be president of France", she said. "The French are conservative and will not be comfortable with her proposal to leave the Euro and bring back the Franc Francaise." (I paraphrase.)
While it is for intellectuals to parse the inconsistencies in policies, the average voter looks for something concrete to make sense of current events. In the absence of something solid, emotions may govern how he votes. The question, as I see it, is "Will voters reflect on Le Pen's plan to return to the French Franc, and reject her as a result. Or will they pay no attention to the implications of such a policy and foolishly vote to 'casser la baraque'?" I've seen no polling as to French attitudes towards leaving the Euro and returning to the FF --I wish I would, for purposes of testing the FT commentator's prediction about the election.
Voters' attitudes are shaped by what they are able to learn before they make their decision. To use a metaphor to make my point, if a campaign's policies are like the planet Saturn, the "rings" represent the degree of voter awareness. For an issue to move a majority of voters, it has to make it to the outermost "ring" --the awareness of voters who vote, but rarely follow politics with any attention.
The polling that is being done is all about "likelihood of support". How superficial that inquiry is, how little it yields, as the disparity of conclusions demonstrates. Perhaps in the last weeks of the election campaign some clarity on the distinct cleavage between Le Pen's plans for EU exit and other candidates' commitment to it will emerge. If it does not, the pollsters are not doing their jobs, performing no civic function..

Lapinot said...

Les Echos had a poll about returning to the franc, and only 28% supported it. Interestingly, only 60% of those favourable to the FN were in favour of a return to the france.

I don't know if that suggests she could make inroads elsewhere based on the idea or if the idea just isn't granted that much importance.

bernard said...

just a quickie on the BVA. The 46% that they quote is pretty misleading - we need to remain breathlessly interested in the race. It includes those who were pretty sure about their choice although they could conceivably still change their minds. In this 46% world only hardcore supporters are considered certain...See BVA page 9.

Take me, I'll vote Macron in the first round and my main reason will be that I would like to avoid the shame of being a citizen from a country which places the SozNat MLP in first place (I do support some of Macron's proposals in economics and am rather happy there is someone, anyone, to support Europe in this election). Conceivably, I could change my mind, say, if Hamon by some miracle became a good campaigner and suddenly gained 12% in the polls, I'd vote for him without a second thought, so should I be counted among those who make Macron's electoral base very friable? Now, the electorates which are least sure of their choices are Macron's and Hamon's: care to venture a reason? My explanation is these electorates share common grounds on several issues and are not extremists.

Lapinot said...


I'm South African so I have Zuma for President and am buggered anyway, but if I were French I think I'd be in the same sort of situation as you.
I'm probably somewhere between Macron and Hamon (so far as candidates can be judged on their programmes before the vote and the realities of ruling) but I'd have to go with Macron as it is, even if I felt more of a pull towards Hamon as a candidate in isolation.

bernard said...

Funny, I've just spent many years right next to your North-West province...Sympathise with you on Zuma, maybe just a touch greedy, though I have to admire a guy who goes from destitute shepherd's son to President of a large democracy.

FrédéricLN said...


Art: "No doubt it is this pattern of noise-making that will continue as we move into the final sequence of the campaign."

I only can answer we are doing our best, at Lassalle's campaign, to replace noise by move during the final sequence of the campaign.

And just because "how surreal the political debate has become and how bewildering it must seem to people who do not follow politics with any persistence", there is huge space on the stage for somebody real.

Mitch Guthman said...

@ Bernard,

I think you should vote for the candidate who best represents your politics. A large number of people of the center-left in the USA, England and France have spent the last several decades voting for centrist candidates whose policies they dislike because of they assumption that only centrists can win. During those same several decades, centrists have fairly uniformly lost even polling has demonstrated consistency highly levels of support for the policies of the center-left.

Perhaps it's time to vigorously and proudly support both the candidates and the policies of the center-left who could hardly be less electable than the much vaunted centrists. I would vote for the candidate who would make the better president and then explain to people why he or she would make the better president; particularly because, in this election, I think Macron would be by far the weakest candidate against MLP of anyone who is not named
François Fillon.

Mitch Guthman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mitch Guthman said...

I would like to make two points on Le Pen and the franc. First, I would like to caution against seeing support for the franc as a proxy for some other basket of beliefs. Speaking for myself only, I have always thought the euro to be a huge mistake for many reasons, not the least of which is that, as the Greeks can attest, you're always at the mercy of whoever controls the currency. But I don't think that my advocacy for leaving the euro translates into a interest in making Vichy great again.

Second, it is a mistake to say that Marine Le Pen has a "plan" for leaving the euro. Insofar as I'm aware, what she has is an expressed desire for a new franc, which is quite different from a plan for achieving that goal. Without rehashing the extensive debate we had here several years ago, I would just say that after looking at the literature very carefully, I have come to the same conclusion as Barry Eichengreen namely, that there's no way out of the euro that doesn't result in catastrophe. Again, if MLP has a plan, I'd like to see it because I don't believe it's possible for a single country to exit the euro without crippling its economy.

bert said...

During the last eurozone crisis a Tory Foreign Secretary undiplomatically called the euro ”a burning building with no exits”.

TexExile said...

What makes you think there is nothing more to be said about Fillon's scandals? Nothing more that is relevant to the election, perhaps, but the revelations just keep coming. I am starting to think of Fillon and money the way one thinks of DSK and sex. Once the scandal erupted, a whole series of things found there way into the press and it turned out that those in the know had known all along...

Alexandra Marshall said...

@texexile, agreed. I wish our collective indulging of schadenfreude were not the true mover and shaker in politics since the crash but it is what it is. Enthusiasm of true believers is certainly capable of moving mountains, and thinking positively (in the sense of positing something rather than simply criticizing) is about solutions, and we need those. But the desire to throw the bums out works pretty well too. Too bad the radical choices these days tend also to be racist and unrealistic and armed only with horrible economic non-programs and resentment.

There's nothing I love more than to see a smarmy hypocrite get his due so I have lots and lots of time for sanctimonious Fillon's downfall. Lots and lots and lots. Does it preclude a discussion of other issues? I don't think we all have only so many brain cells for politics, and Fillon is taking them all up. But maybe that's just me? I haven't seen nearly as many headlines about universal basic income as I have Arnys. The latter needs only the lizard brain and the former something much more complex. In a world where 140 characters is about all anyone has time for, the lizards seem to be winning.