Steady on. One can’t really say that the day of glory has arrived, unless one is Emmanuel Macron. But at least le jour de désastre has been averted, and that is plenty enough to be getting on with. Let’s just forget that a third of French voters supported a party that many would consider crypto-Fascist.
However, it is a sad day when the failure of France to elect an extreme, racist government (or the failure of the Netherlands to do so in March) feels like a triumph. How have we reached the point where not having the Front Nationale in power appears to be a victory? What has happened to the centre ground of politics?
Despite all assertions to the contrary, the centre ground is alive and well enough – if not entirely thriving – to prevail in most cases. As it has in the Netherlands and now in France, and as it surely will in the UK and then in Germany. It may be centre-right or centre-left, but in no case is it extreme. In no case is it far off centre. Whatever commentators say, Macron is not an insurgent outsider. Britain’s attempt at a credible far-right party is withered on the vine. The only clear exception so far has been in America.
It is not, I hope, complacent to say that, while European electorates have fired warning shots across several bows, they have not yet blown up any ships, or shown much likelihood of doing so. The message, if there is one, is not that we should now wrap ourselves in an isolationist, anti-globalist cocoon, but that governments need to be more active and more imaginative in addressing the side-effects of globalisation and in caring for those who have been stranded by it.
So perhaps political commentators can stop behaving as if the rule book of politics has been torn up, as if the unimaginable has at least as great a chance of success as the probable. This, in turn, requires them and us to have some faith again in opinion polls. Throughout the fortnight leading up to the second round of the French elections, Macron held a vast lead in all the polls, yet political commentators behaved as if Le Pen had an almost equal chance of victory. This can now be seen to have been ridiculous.
Pollsters have had a hard time of it in the past two years. They deserve some of the criticism, but not all of it. The predictions for the 2015 British general election, for Brexit and for the US election have been conflated to suggest that all polls are now unbelievable. Yet, of the three, only the Brexit polls were demonstrably wide of the mark, and that was much the hardest of the three for the pollsters to make a reliable prediction because there was no exact precedent for the sampling.
It is still generally believed that the American polls got the US election wrong. Yes and no. On the eve of voting, they predicted a lead for Hillary Clinton of about 3%. This was very close to the lead she achieved (2.23%). Where they went wrong (and where Clinton’s campaign went wrong) was in understanding how the national vote would translate into votes in the individual states, and thus in the electoral college. This appears to have come about because, while the samples were large enough nationally, in individual states they were too small to be reliable.
It is also generally believed that the British polls got the 2015 election wrong. Again, yes and no. It is undeniable that the predictions of voting intentions were wrong. However, in the run-up to the election, the Conservatives were well ahead of Labour on the rating for economic competence, and David Cameron was well ahead of Ed Miliband on the rating for leadership qualities. Those parts of the poll results were reliable. Since these two factors are invariably what most influence voting intention, there was a glaring anomaly within each individual poll result all the way through the campaign. Because commentators focus only on voting intention, this anomaly went unreported. Had it been discussed at the time, the result would have come as less of a surprise.
This anomaly also suggests that the British pollsters did not get their sampling wrong. What it does suggest is that their sample citizens, deliberately or unknowingly, did not reveal their true voting intentions. How pollsters cope with that problem, I do not know. But we can at least look at all the data revealed by their polls and ask ourselves if they add up.
The inaccuracy of polls has been greatly exaggerated. The collapse of the centre ground has been greatly exaggerated. There is more of a tendency to extremist, anti-government sentiment in Europe and America, but not yet any likelihood of revolution, within a democratic framework or outside it. This is not the end of the world as we know it. There is no reason to tear up all existing templates of political analysis. It’s time to calm down, to stop being alarmist, and to have some some confidence in what remain the fundamentals.
And France will continue as normal: bolshy, quixotic and ill-tempered. There will be demos and riots and all manner of dire threats. For my entire life, sages have muttered that France cannot go on this way. For my entire life, it has gone on this way. And, until it collapses, I will believe that it can continue to go on this way. France is a country that appears to have a unique ability to be impervious to all natural laws.