The French presidential election
It's election time in France, as the nation heads to the polls on 10 April. There will then be a runoff between the top two candidates on 24 April. So, how do we think the election will play out? And what could it mean for investors?
A quick recap
Unlike other European states, the French president is the main figure in the nation's political system. He/she holds executive and legislative powers, including the appointment of a prime minister that reflects the parliamentary majority. The president therefore drives the policymaking agenda. He/she is also the head of national defence and diplomacy.
Where do we stand?
Ahead of April's vote, President Macron enjoyed a comfortable lead in both the first- and second-round polls. His handling of the Russia-Ukraine crisis has bolstered his standing in the eyes of many voters. Further, the 2022 elections are taking place against a very different economic and political backdrop than previous campaigns. France has experienced one of the strongest recoveries from the Covid-19 pandemic and is no longer regarded as one of the 'sick men' of Europe. Angela Merkel's retirement has left Macron as Europe's senior statesperson. As a result, he enjoys stronger support at this stage of the campaign than his two predecessors.
Nonetheless, support for populist candidates is once again robust. Veteran far-right leader Marine Le Pen remains Macron's main challenger. Her Euroscepticism has moderated since 2017 as she attempts to appeal to the political centre. Le Pen's tone is less incendiary than in previous campaigns. Meanwhile, higher inflation is eroding workers' purchasing power. She and others are evoking the spectre of 'green inflation' to scare-up votes. This is putting the efficacy of France's climate strategy at the heart of the electoral debate.
That said, the political spectrum is more fragmented than ever. The candidacy of Eric Zemmour could potentially fracture the far-right vote. As a candidate, he combines controversial stances on immigration with liberal (but vague) economic policies. Unlike Le Pen, he seems to recognise the unsustainability of the French pension system. At the same time, he is even keener to pick a fight with the EU on legal sovereignty.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Jean-Luc Mélenchon represents a different type of economic danger. As an avowed socialist, he wants to increase tax on overtime work, raise marginal tax rates and re-regulate labour markets. Each of these would undermine progress to improve the competitiveness of the French economy. Nonetheless, Mélenchon's campaign has picked up considerable momentum in recent weeks.
The result - a market perspective
In the event France elects a far-right candidate, assets would likely come under pressure. We would expect to see a widening of French sovereign bond spreads and underperformance of domestically-oriented French equity and credit securities. However, given populists' retreat from hardline Eurosceptic views, the fallout would likely be less extreme than if it had occurred in 2017, or what we saw after the 2018 Italian elections.
The largest risk is less the outright victory of an extreme candidate, but rather a more fragmented parliament following regional elections in June. A second-term centrist government is likely to have to compromise with parties of both the left and right over economic, energy, and European policy. This has the potential to lead to policy stasis.
By contrast, markets would welcome the re-election of Macron. His victory would imply policy continuity and further progress on the reform agenda. We could possibly see further EU integration and a renewed attempt to tackle pension reforms.
Further, Macron is an advocate for more investment in green and nuclear technologies. However, he will be wary of raising fuel or carbon taxes for fear of reviving the Gilets Jaunes movement. Pension reform will be the hardest issue to tackle. Macron wants to increase the retirement age from 62 to 65. Many will find that hard to swallow. It could also revive the social tensions that plagued the first years of his presidency.
The largest risk is less the outright win of an extreme candidate, but rather a more fragmented parliament following regional elections in June.
Who will win?
At the time of writing, Macron remained in the driving seat. By our numbers, he will likely face Le Pen in the second round of voting, despite Mélenchon's recent surge.
Thereafter, we expect Macron will retain the presidency, albeit on a tighter margin than we thought a month ago. Indeed, two polls published on 28 March showed Le Pen narrowing the gap by three points. If they faced each other in the final round, an Ifop-Fiducial group indicated Macron would win by just 53% versus Len Pen's 47%.
One potential risk to this scenario is historically low voter turnout following a race overshadowed by the Russia-Ukraine crisis. That said, there's little consensus as to which candidates would suffer most from more voters staying at home.
All in all, it promises to be an interesting week ahead. We'll bring you our latest analysis once the final votes are counted.
Author: Alexandra Popa, Macro ESG Research, Abrdn Research Institute
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