20 April 2017

Le Dilemme des Citoyens et Citoyennes

Game theory and the French elections.

by Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

Polls in France still show that around a third of citizens have not decided who they will vote for in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday.  In many cases, if my French friends and acquaintances are any guide, this is not because they dislike all eleven candidates.  Indeed, those friends have told me very clearly who impresses them and who does not; but only two have told me who will get their vote.  The problem the French face is this: if they simply vote for the candidate whose character and policies they most like, they may well end up with a president they can’t stand.

They are in a situation not unlike that faced by the two criminals in The Prisoners’ Dilemma, the most well-known example of game theory.  Each prisoner, colleagues in a violent crime for which they are awaiting trial, is in solitary confinement, unable to speak to the other.  Each is offered a choice: confess or remain silent.  Each is told that if both confess, both will be sentenced to two years in prison; if one confesses and the other remains silent, the confessor will be set free and the silent one will get five years in prison; if both remain silent, they will only be in prison for one year on a lesser charge. The rational decision for each prisoner is to confess; neither knows what their partner will decide and it is safer for each to assume that the other can’t be trusted to keep his mouth shut.  Yet, the best outcome for both would occur if they both stayed silent.

Like each prisoner, no French voter can be sure, of course, what decision their fellow citizens are going to take on Sunday.  It would not matter if, as nearly always in the past, they were certain who the two winning candidates would be. But this time only a handkerchief, as the French say, separates four of the candidates. The distance between the recent average polling figures for Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen (23%) and those of François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19%) make it too close to call. Normally, the pollsters release their exit poll predictions at 20.00 on the evening of Election Day.  People attending election night parties count down the last few seconds to the hour and champagne corks fly a few seconds afterwards, whatever the result.  But not this time. 20.00 will pass without exit polls.

The fact of this mouchoir is the main reason why pollsters have been spending so much time and money trying to find out who voters will vote for in the second round according to three hypotheses.  Assuming Le Pen is one candidate, how would people vote if she faced Macron, Fillon or Mélenchon?  In all cases, Le Pen would lose. In fact, the pollsters initially asked how she would fare against Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, not Mélenchon.  But Hamon has trailed off in this race and is even in danger of being overtaken by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a candidate who shares most of Le Pen’s views.  However, Le Pen is no longer certain of being in the second round. The permutations have now become six.

One polling organisation, IPSOS, decided to ask voters who their second choice was in the first round.  I suspect IPSOS felt that this would be a more accurate pointer to who will win, should many people vote not for who they most like but against who they most fear.  The results were revealing and have been pored over by commentators.  They also provide voters with some idea of how others might cast their ballots.

François Fillon, Republican Party candidate, is supposed to represent the centre-right. However, he has recently been shown to be flirting with Sens Commun, a tiny group of social conservatives who are against same-sex marriage, as is Fillon.  He has said more than once that if he does not get to the second round, nearly all his supporters will vote for Le Pen “less out of conviction, more out of rage.” But IPSOS has found that, in fact, only 6% of Fillon’s supporters give Le Pen as their second choice.  58% said that Macron, the centrist, ex Economy Minister in the current Socialist Government, was their second favourite (and 21% had right-wing Dupont-Aignan as their number two). This was not what any political expert seems to have expected.  But even more puzzling was the response of Macron’s supporters. 30% said that the Communist-backed Marxist, Mélenchon, was their second choice.  Only 12% would switch to Fillon.  Exactly a third of Macron’s supporters declared that they would not choose any other candidate.  What about the second choice of those currently intending to vote for the extremists?  33% of Le Pen’s people said Macron and 26% said Mélenchon. Hardly any of them would consider Fillon, the person whose policies are not too different from Le Pen’s.

What does this tell us? First, the old loyalties to simplistic labels like Right and Left have largely disappeared. Secondly, there is a yearning for change and a readiness to accept some extreme solutions to France’s problems. Thirdly, there is across-the-board contempt for the old guard, represented in this election by ex-Prime Minister Fillon.  Finally, a very large number of French people will only decide who they will vote for at the last moment.

I was in the UK two weeks ago. I found it difficult to get across how ground-breaking and strange this French presidential election is proving to be.  Imagine that in the upcoming UK general election you had to choose between these four people to be the UK’s leader: Nigel Farage, George Osborne, an early version of Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone.  Polls show them to be running neck-and-neck.  Only two can go through to the final round.  Who would you vote for?  Add in the fact that if Farage were to win, he would have, initially at least, only two UKIP MPs.  Osborne would have perhaps half of the existing Tory MPs on his side.  Blair would have no MPs at all. And Livingstone would only have those Labour MPs who find Jeremy Corbyn too far to the right for their taste.  Around 70% of existing MPs would not have backed any of the four candidates.  It is not an exact comparison with the French election.  Neither Osborne nor Blair are that close in character and political views to Fillon and Macron respectively.  However, though their backgrounds are utterly different, Farage and Le Pen share the same world view.  And Mélenchon has turned himself in a few months from someone who resembled Arthur Scargill in his heyday to a close approximation to Ken Livingstone.

It is now perfectly possible that the French will have to choose between Mélenchon and Le Pen for their president.  If so, I would expect Mélenchon to win.  Either choice would spell the end of the European Union. The Japanese would set the Euro plummeting in value overnight on Sunday. Or it could be Fillon versus Le Pen (predicted by five brave students of Télécom Paris Tech whose new-fangled polling methods have Le Pen on 24.13% and Fillon on 21.77%, just ahead of Macron; I love their confidence in going to two decimal places).  If so, everyone (including those students) expects Fillon to win.  I am not so sure.  And if he did win, would he have the moral authority or sufficiently solid support from Republican MPs to push through his painful reforms?  Best for France would be Macron against Le Pen. I think the result would be much closer than pundits currently suggest. Most importantly, two radically different futures for France would be presented to the French people.  At last, they would be able to have a proper debate, a return to a world they understand.

By the way, in the course of this election I have hardly mentioned the French parliamentary elections which are coming up on 11 and 18 June (yes, two rounds again).  The general election campaign does not end late on Sunday 7 May.  France will then have a president but the political party which he or she heads may have no or very few MPs.  Yet another battle will start: to fill 577 parliamentary seats.  Expect a complete change to the names and nature of France’s political parties.

See you on the other side.

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