Of course, countries don’t really “want” things; only individuals do that. But the individuals that make up the nation of France do seem to have, collectively, a very clear preference about the result of their presidential election. It’s just not certain that they’ll be able to get it.

Polls for the first round of voting open in just over three days time. Four candidates – from left to right, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen – are running almost neck and neck, all polling in the high teens or low twenties. Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, who once made a fifth, has dwindled into single digits, joining the six minor party candidates.

Only two will go through to the second round: it will probably be Macron and Le Pen, who have led the field since the beginning of February, but it is too close to be sure.

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say that there are two candidates on the right (Fillon and Le Pen) and two on the left (Macron and Mélenchon), and that while there may be slippage within each camp, each has enough support to ensure one of its candidates will be in the runoff.

The other way is to use the same logic but describe the two camps differently: one of the political establishment (Fillon and Macron) and one anti-establishment (Le Pen and Mélenchon). If that’s the right way to look at it, then a runoff between Macron and Mélenchon, for example, is a possibility; if the first way is correct, it isn’t.

Unfortunately, no-one knows which of these perspectives is closer to the truth. And absent that knowledge, any of the six second-round combinations remains a possibility.

But while Sunday’s vote is a mass of uncertainty, we know a lot more about the second round. French voters prefer Macron to any of the other three; with him out they prefer Mélenchon; and as between Fillon and Le Pen they prefer Fillon.

Every single opinion poll taken this year – and there have been hundreds – has produced a result consistent with this preference order. Very few have even been close; Fillon dipped to 52.5% matched against Le Pen in one poll last week, and another put Macron at only 54% against Mélenchon, but those are outliers.

In the most likely match up, Macron is consistently beating Le Pen by twenty points or more.

Hypothetical polls are not always reliable; people sometimes behave differently when faced by the real thing. But this degree of unanimity is pretty impressive. It looks as if the French are clear about how they order the possible outcomes; the question is whether the voting system will deliver for them.

Advocates of Condorcet voting, where voters fill out preferences and then all the one-on-one comparisons get counted, will of course point to this as an ideal example of the superiority of their method. And mathematically they’d be right. But the practicality of asking voters to determine their preference among eleven candidates, most of whom will have no chance (but with Condorcet voting you’d have no way of knowing which ones), would be daunting – not to mention counting them all.

The fact that Condorcet voting would at times have given Australia a parliament full of Australian Democrats might also limit one’s enthusiasm.

All voting systems have their problems. In most circumstances, France’s works pretty well. But it’s not designed for a situation that’s getting close to a four-way tie.

Would preferential voting à la Australia do any better? In that case, the key thing is not who finishes in the top two, but who comes fourth. A fourth place for Mélenchon or Fillon would elect Macron; a fourth place for Macron would elect Mélenchon. A fourth place for Le Pen might also elect Mélenchon, although no-one really knows what her voters would do.

Either way, you would save the cost of a second round of voting, at the price of losing the opportunity for people to focus their minds on one decision at a time, and perhaps change their position after another fortnight of campaigning.

It’s a fascinating problem for election junkies. But it’s one with very real consequences for France, as well as for Europe and the rest of the world. And with the incumbent party languishing a distant fifth, France is in for change, whatever happens.

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