This Is How You Should Read French Election Polls

JPMorgan's Stubbs Sees Risk Rising in French Election

It’s been a tough run for political polling, leading some to view poll results with an extra dose of skepticism. That might be particularly appropriate in France. Its two-stage presidential election system, with multiple candidates appealing to a highly divided electorate, makes interpreting polls something of an art. Especially as most focus on the first round, rather than the end result.

1. Who’s up at the moment?

Marine Le Pen, head of the anti-immigrant, anti-European Union National Front, and centrist independent Emmanuel Macron are the front-runners, with most polls showing Le Pen slightly ahead. The Bloomberg composite poll-of-polls on April 10 had Le Pen at 24 percent and Macron at 23 percent. It’s a similar tie for third place. Francois Fillon of the center-right Republicans was at 19 percent and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon at 18 percent.

2. How has that moved over time?

Most polls at the end of 2016 showed Fillon with a narrow lead over Le Pen, and Macron much further behind. Then Fillon fell back when he was accused in late January of hiring family members for potentially no-show jobs. Le Pen was alone in the lead until mid-March when Macron caught up. Melenchon was far behind until a strong performance in a March 20 debate.

3. So is Le Pen now favored to be France’s next president?

No.

4. How can that be?

The headline polling numbers reflect possible outcomes for the first round of the election, on April 23. Under the French system, if no presidential candidate collects a first-round majority -- and no one ever has topped 50 percent -- the top two finishers face off in a second round, scheduled for May 7. Le Pen may have a solid bloc of support, but she’s also France’s most controversial figure and her anti-Europe views are rejected by most French. That might hurt her in a one-on-one race.

5. Who could beat her in a second round?

Any of her main competitors, apparently. OpinionWay’s latest daily poll showed Fillon beating Le Pen by 57 percent to 43 percent and Macron routing her by 62 percent to 38 percent.

6. Why is that the case?

France’s National Front has a fervent but limited base of support. That makes the party formidable in the crowded first round of voting but leaves it struggling thereafter. In regional elections in 2015, the party led the first-round voting in six of 12 mainland regions but failed to win any of them in the run-offs. Voters from other parties, it seems, held their noses and backed each other, intent to keep Le Pen’s party out. “Le Pen still doesn’t have any allies who could help her win a presidential runoff,” said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence. “Both Macron and Fillon would probably receive the endorsements of the rest of mainstream parties.”

7. So is it impossible to foresee a Madame le President Le Pen?

Not impossible. Did the world learn nothing from Brexit and Donald Trump?

8. How could Le Pen win?

Any number of things could happen before April 23. Another terror attack could further undermine establishment parties and draw swing voters to Le Pen’s anti-foreigner message. The Feb. 3 incident at the Louvre and another one March 18 at Orly airport, where soldiers had to use weapons to subdue assailants, dominated media coverage and show how even minor terror attacks can unsettle a country that’s on edge. Fillon has been hit with a graft investigation -- he hired his wife for years as an assistant, and there are doubts about how much work she actually did. He’s survived an attempt by members of his party to get him to stand down, but the probe continues and revelations keep coming. Plus, low turnout in the second round could distort the results. While turnout in French presidential elections has always remained at or above 80 percent, there are doubts about the second round this year. Fillon is openly religious and is calling for a Thatcherite cure for the French economy, hardly appetizing for leftist voters who may see little reason to choose him over Le Pen. If many stay home, that could distort the second-round results. Likewise, some Fillon voters may prefer Le Pen overly the openly pro-globalization Macron, whose support so far has been driven to a large degree by dissatisfaction with the traditional parties. Already, the margins in second-round polling have narrowed a few points over the past weeks.

9. What’s a worried observer to do?

Keep watching. OpinionWay and Ifop each publish daily tracking polls, and BVA, Ispos, Harris and others are also polling. Plus there’s Oddschecker.com, a sports betting website that also lets people wager on political races. The bookmakers now make Macron the favorite with 57 percent chance, while Le Pen has a probability of 27 percent. Fillon had been an early favorite but is now only at 19 percent.

10. Can we trust the polls ?

Probably. French pollsters have been remarkably reliable in recent elections. They’ve had almost 20 years of learning how to cope with the unwillingness of some people to admit they vote National Front. And the polls in the U.S. election and Brexit weren’t as wrong as often claimed. Regardless, the margins in those elections were always much tighter. There was never anything as wide as the huge spread between Macron and Le Pen. There is one health warning about Oddschecker.com: betting on elections doesn’t exist in France so those odds are compiled solely by non-resident bookies.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg QuickTake Q&A explaining that probe of Fillon and another on populism.
  • Le Pen is just one of Europe’s anti-establishment figures seeing hope in Trump’s triumph.
  • A Bloomberg View editorial on Le Pen.
  • Bloomberg graphics has detailed where the candidates stand on the issues.
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