One of the recent The Economist headlines reads:

"If France used America’s system, Marine Le Pen might have won"

Note that this is before the second round has taken place, so the final outcome of the election was yet to be determined when the article was published.

Without a qualification such as "won the 1st round", I suppose one would have to rely on temporal context to interpret this headline, as referring to the 1st round (which is expected, I suppose). Although, as I'll discuss below, a good case can be made that "won the 1st round" is not exactly the intended interpretation.

But without that qualification, the headline seems to read as referring to the final (i.e. post 2nd round) election result, and as such it seems false, since it appears to be expressing a false counterfactual. That is, the 2nd round isn't over yet so no one has lost nor won, yet the sentence seems to be saying that

"Le Pen lost (the entire election), but she may not have lost were the electoral system different."

Am I being picky or is the headline indeed somewhat misleading?

Here is a brief analysis:

The key problem here seems to be that, as a matter of fact the French presidential elections are still in progress, i.e. haven't ended yet. This causes an odd competing of interpretations---each, contingent on how we interpret the content of the antecedent, i.e. which factors we consider as most relevant.

So what hypothetical scenario are we actually invited to consider, taking into account the time of the article's publication? This will depend largely on what elements of the actual world we wish to keep fixed in the hypothetical scenario---the criterion of keeping them fixed being their relevance.

The election is still in progress.

Surely, that needs to remain fixed, since it's highly relevant. Otherwise there would be an actual winner/looser of the election whom we now could speak of. Can a case be made that this fact is not relevant?

But there are two rounds to the French presidential election to just one round of the US presidential election (unless we interpret the primaries as the first round, but let's not for now). So in the hypothetical do we consider the election over after "the first and only" round or after the second one?

Suppose we consider them over after the first round. But in that hypothetical it would no longer be the case that the election is still in progress---a fact we considered relevant enough to keep fixed in the hypothetical. Since that possibility is ruled out, what is left? We can't wait until the 2nd round because in the hypothetical it doesn't exist.


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    I don't believe it is misleading. If France used the American system, there would be no second round, therefore Le Pen might have won - already. The headline seems perfectly grammatical to me. And I don't see where the "subjunctive" enters into it. – WS2 May 1 '17 at 9:59
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    Yes. I agree with you there - "already" would help. As it is written it could be seen as suggesting that the election is over, and that she has lost. I do see the point you are making. Just picked up your later comment, I didn't say "there would be no need for a second round". If it were the American system there would be no second round - full stop. – WS2 May 1 '17 at 10:11
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    What subjunctive? – BillJ May 1 '17 at 10:48
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    If France had had the American system then voters might have behaved differently – Henry May 1 '17 at 12:16
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    One problem with including already is that it nuances the headline toward an idea that she will eventually win. Exclude it and it suggests she has lost. Given the political leaning of The Economist toward Macron, it is not surprising already is not there. – WS2 May 1 '17 at 13:49

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