The French Election By the Numbers: Could a Surprise Be Waiting on Sunday?

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Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

France's President and UMP party candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections Nicolas Sarkozy reacts as he leaves the stage during a campaign rally in Saint Maurice, a Paris suburb, April 19, 2012.

With just three days to go before April 22 voting in the first round of France’s presidential elections, three things are clear–though they aren’t really consistent.

The first is that while some polls project incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy narrowly winning Sunday’s initial balloting—and others show Socialist rival François Hollande coming out on top—they collectively paint a virtual first round tie. The second is that all recent surveys anticipate that Hollande will trounce Sarkozy in the all-important May 6 run-off by a minimum of 11 points. The third  is that with those 26% of the electorate expected to abstain–and the bloc of voters saying they’ve yet to make their choice at 24%–all sorts of surprises are possible. Cast an eye towards the margins for the potential for surprises. 

Surveys show extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen battling hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon for third place at somewhere between 14% and 17%. Analysts warn that with nearly a quarter of all French voters undecided, those waffling individuals may figure they can cast protest ballots for extreme candidates without affecting the likely Sarkozy-Holland face-off. The risk is that because voters believe they can tinker with how they vote in the first round, they could in fact radically alter who actually makes it into that all-important second round “This is what happened in 2002, when a surge of protest votes for Jean-Marie Le Pen allowed him to narrowly outscore (Socialist) Lionel Jospin, and sneak into the final against (incumbent) Jacques Chirac,” says Dénis Muzet, president of the Paris-based Institut Médiascopie opinion research group, who notes high abstention among people who usually back traditional parties magnifies the impact of voting for extremists.  “As in 2002, many people are now disillusioned with mainstream politicians, and feel France’s political system isn’t responding to their concerns. And as in 2002, polls are projecting high abstention numbers that always penalize mainstream candidates. This is one reason why Sarkozy, but most of all Hollande need to impress upon active and potential backers that the contest isn’t over, anything can happen, and that every vote will count.”

How would such an upset work? Poll-watching conservatives and centrists who now say they’ll vote for Sarkozy—around 28% of the total in surveys—could figure he has no hopes of winning the final against Hollande,  and therefore not bother to cast ballots in the first phase Sunday. The same conclusion could also lead harder-right voters—who’ve reluctantly backed Sarkozy as a better bet to make it into the Elysée—to turn back towards Le Pen, whose anti-Europe, anti-immigration, and authoritarian positions are closer to their own. Though still considered unlikely, that scenario would allow Le Pen fille to replicate her father’s 2002 coup.

Francois Mori / AP

Hollande faces similar danger. With polls indicating his second-round victory probable, some harder-left Hollande backers—and/or a large body of undecided people—could conclude they can back the anti-capitalist, protectionist, market-bashing Mélenchon without imperiling the Socialist’s second-round qualification chances. Others might figure their pro-Hollande vote isn’t necessary, and stay home. Dramatically large waves of abstention and defection could be enough, pundits warn, to lift either Mélenchon or Le Pen over Hollande into the second round. That, again, is unlikely—but something Hollande himself is wary of.

“A critical question in this election will be how high the abstention rate is among working-class voters,” Hollande told TIME during a campaign visit to the Channel port town Boulogne-sur-Mer in late March. “A main objective in this election, and for the Socialist Party in general, is to get working-class people who no longer vote back to the polls, and voting for us as they used to in the past.”

That’s a tall order, and not just for Hollande’s Socialists. With the exception of 2007—when a hard-fought presidential race generated nearly 85% participation—abstention in France has been steadily on the rise, fueled largely by voter disillusion in leaders from right and left alike.

Such disenchantment is clear to Jean-Marc Legrand, a 61 year-old Boulogne-sur-Mer resident who lost his packaging job in the local fish industry in 2001—after 32 years on the production line. Since then, Legrand says he’s participated in countless job training schemes without any ever leading to work. After voting for Socialist candidates most of his life, Legrand says he backed Sarkozy in 2007. This year, he pledges, no one will get his support. “It doesn’t matter who wins because none of them ever changed anything before, and the next president will now find all his options dictated by Europe, Germany, and by financial markets,” Legrand reasons. “I spent the last decade doing everything I could to find work. Now, 2013 is the year I qualify to ‘retire’ from being jobless—it’s disgusting, humiliating. Neither Sarkozy or Hollande can change that, so they’ll have to play this political farce without me.” With nearly half of all French voters either saying they’ll join Legrand in abstention or make a decision of who to back at the last minute, the kind of anger he expresses may yet play a role in who becomes president.