From President of the Rich, to Candidate of the People

Nicolas Sarkozy has – finally – declared his candidature. In one sense, this was a mere formality as the likelihood of the incumbent President not standing for re-election was vanishingly small. Yet there are four reasons why the impact of this declaration is important, and is likely to be more pronounced than might otherwise be expected.

First, the announcement defines Sarkozy as a candidate, and then as an outgoing president. To date, he has played on his role as the incumbent Head of State to demonstrate his international presence, statesmanship and position above the fray of mere party politics. As we have argued, this marks an attempt by Sarkozy to emulate the American Rose Garden strategy. The Cannes summit; the triple-A downgrade; the Afghanistan military tragedy – whilst unwelcome news for France, and potentially harmful to Sarkozy – have nonetheless given Sarkozy an ideal stage upon which to play the role of President incarnate.

Yet, whilst the polls showed some evidence of a rally towards the end of 2011 on the back of this tactic, the overall gains it provided on François Hollande’s lead were short-lived. Just as worrying for Sarkozy, the gap between his position and Far Right candidate Marine Le Pen had not widened. In fact, it was quite the opposite – Le Pen even overtook the incumbent among certain social groups.

Sarkozy the candidate needs to return to the electoral arena to fight his way back to power, in the way he fought his way to his first incumbency in 2007. An interview with Figaro Magazine has already provided interesting clues as to how this might occur. One strategic shift is the move away from valence –e.g. competence, statesmanship or credibility– to divisive positional issues such as immigration, social welfare benefits or gay marriage, where electoral gains can be potentially made from higher ideological polarization. Sarkozy’s spurious attacks on the allegedly ‘pro-immigration’ positions of Hollande, or re-launching the controversial debate over opening shops on Sundays, leave little doubt as to his intention of firmly occupying both the authoritarian and neo-liberal territory.

Second, Sarkozy has chosen to headline with ‘la France forte!’. While perhaps not the most captivating of slogans, it nonetheless delineates his primary objective – to cluster voters along well-identified ideological lines– and spans the three set of values that provided the fanfare for his candidacy – ‘travail, responsabilité, autorité’ (Work, Duty, Authority). Juxtaposed with Hollande’s optimistic but somewhat oxymoronic Le changement, c’est maintenant (The Change is Now), one would be hard pressed to find a more Nietzschean proclamation of success through self-empowerment and struggle.

As a value-set, Sarkozy’s approach is promising tough decisions for tough times, attempting to shift responsibility onto the shoulders of the willing voter, and away from the executive. Comparatively, there are more than a few parallels to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. Despite Sarkozy’s proclaimed inspiration from the Germany of Merkel and of Schröder, much like Cameron’s vision of the Big Society he is portraying the future French society as one in which upright citizens take responsibility for the welfare of their communities, their families and themselves, and where they are backed by more effective regional and local representation (even if budgets are to be cut).

Moreover, the strategy is implicitly condemning those who cannot, or will not, live up to its aspiration. The French, therefore, are bidding farewell to the paternalist president who once claimed in Toulon that he would protect them from the “foolishness of the free market” and would “reform international financial capitalism”. While leaving it to the left and Marine Le Pen to fight over the ‘remains of the old world’, Sarkozy is inviting voters to this new land of economic opportunities called globalisation.

As a political vehicle, the ‘strong France’ slogan puts nation first, and even (if necessary) at the expense of individual and pluralist interests, and in opposition to fundamental principles of representative democracy. Given Sarkozy’s well-known personal loathing for popular referenda, his sudden conversion to the delights of direct democracy can hardly be seen as a revival of the magnificent plebiscitary tradition in French Gaullism. Instead, it resembles the classic claim by right-wing populist demagogues that the ‘true’ will of the people is best expressed by bypassing all intermediary political bodies –i.e. parties, unions, councils and Parliament.

More Boulanger than Bonaparte, Sarkozy is replicating his 2007 anti-establishment appeal, when he pounced on the country’s elite, the ‘intellectuals’ and the ‘self-righteous’ who he associated with a permissive ‘post-68’ ideology. In an attempt to jettison his image as the ‘President of the Rich’, Sarkozy is now striving to reconstruct himself as a candidate of the people against the political class.

And this is the third reason for focusing on his declaration. A French President represents tous les Français. It is why, symbolically, the absolute majority at the second round is so important. Before the first round, a French presidential candidate only needs to represent as many French voters as are needed to secure victory, and in that mindset, Sarkozy is choosing to stay firmly on the Right. In 2007, analysts ascribed his victory, in part at least, to support from a group of former (Jean-Marie) Le Pen voters. The emphasis on immigration and law-and-order appealed to the bouc-émissaire mindset of the reactionary, xenophobic Right.

That this group would once again be targeted in 2012 became clear well before Sarkozy’s declaration. Claude Guéant, the Interior Minister, alluded to a hierarchy of civilisations and cultures, with the support of many (if not all) in the UMP, including the President himself. Gay marriage was condemned as deleterious to family, while the announcement of the values that would underpin an eventual campaign embodied a hard Right approach. In all senses, and despite protests to the contrary, Sarkozy’s candidacy is exclusionary, in a way that an incumbent President would find impossible to sustain.

There is a fourth and final element to Sarkozy’s reverse metamorphosis from President to Candidate. Whether he is able to garner some Far Right support in the first round against Le Pen, or even win the vast majority of these Far Right voters in a second round run-off, the numbers required for victory do not add up. This is because the centre-right of Bayrou, together with the Left bloc as a whole, represent more than 50 per cent of the vote. As polls inch upwards for post-declaration Sarkozy, and minor Right-wing candidates such as Christine Boutin and Hervé Morin stand aside, the gap at the second round with Hollande remains double-digit.

At some point soon, Sarkozy needs to turn away from the hard Right to address voters on the centre ground. The Janus approach to canvassing is not uncommon for two-round systems. But, in this case, the difficulty of looking Left is being exacerbated by just how far Right  Sarkozy has placed himself. Some see his eventual centrist tactic involving an appeal to economic management. Yet, in that area, Sarkozy’s credibility is weak, particularly amongst the squeezed middle classes. Whether he can find another point of resonance based upon his worth as ‘the man for the job’ will come down entirely to his capacity to reinvent his image as an individual, rather than as a Head of State.

As we noted in a recent debate on France 24, this might require also a little more humility.

Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi

Ballots and Bullets is delighted to be publishing several guest blogs from these authors, who are the two minds behind 500 signatures. Professor Jocelyn Evans and Dr Gilles Ivaldi offer expert insight into the forthcoming Presidential elections in France. Prof. Evans is currently working with Matt Goodwin from Nottingham on a study of far right supporters, launching on March 8th.

When (French) Polls Go Wrong

Ballots and Bullets is delighted to be publishing several guest blogs from the two minds behind 500 signatures. Professor Jocelyn Evans and Dr Gilles Ivaldi offer expert insight into the forthcoming Presidential elections in France. Prof. Evans is currently working with Matt Goodwin from Nottingham on a study of far right supporters, launching on March 8th.

Since the infamous 1936 Literary Digest poll misforecasting a famous victory for US Republican Alf Landon over the Democrat incumbent Franklin Roosevelt, people have had good reason to be skeptical about pre-election polls. Even by 1948, a more methodologically refined approach to survey research championed by Angus Campbell and Robert Kahn had proved its worth in correctly backing Harry Truman (unlike pollsters, who had all their money on Thomas Dewey). In France, the more conceptual critique of mass opinion polling as a “science without a scientist” by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has nurtured immense distrust in what American political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg alternatively referred to as a “subtle instrument of power”.

Even below the heady heights of critical sociology, pre-election polls have constantly been the subject of sharp criticism in French politics for simple empirical failure. In 1995, pollsters came under fire for pre-emptively crowning centre-right candidate and outgoing Prime Minister Edouard Balladur as the new Head of State. Seven years later, scathing criticism was directed at polls once again for not having anticipated Lionel Jospin’s elimination from the 2002 presidential race. It is only because things went “according to plan”, i.e. a straight Left-Right run-off in 2007 that the enduring lack of accuracy in the polls – most notably, the over-estimation of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s eventual score – went almost unnoticed.

The current presidential campaign is not immune to this type of debate. We have already addressed some of these issues in two previous posts on ‘house effects’ and the discrepancies that can be observed across pollsters. Two recent developments in the campaign have turned our attention back to the significance of pre-election polls and the need for some transparency in the methods employed by polling institutes.

First, the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) has confirmed the right of French pollsters to keep their methods for poll adjustment and data weighting under wraps. In their decision, the administrative jurisdiction deemed such practices equivalent to business ‘trade secrets’. This has infuriated left-wing harbinger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who initially brought the case to the Council following a controversial Harris Interactive poll allocating him a measly 3 per cent of the vote, and after urging the institute to disclose their calculation methods. Mélenchon has indicated he will lodge his case at the European Court of Human Rights.

The absence of transparency has not escaped the politicians. This very question was central to the provision of a cross-partisan bill proposed in February 2011 to amend the 1977 law on polling, but to date is still pending a vote by the National Assembly. Whilst understandable for commercial reasons, the reluctance of French pollsters to disclose their in-house processes of post-survey weighting contrasts sharply with best practice elsewhere.

For example, the British Polling Council – the counterpart to France’s Commission des Sondagesrequires that pollsters make available all weighted and unweighted figures. A half-way house is Italy, which legally requires polling institutes to reveal their sampling methods, non-response rates and post-collection adjustments – but in a survey by Dr Graziella Castro of the University of Salford, only around 7 per cent of institutes actually did so.

Another controversy has been triggered by the publication of a series of polls testing vote intentions on the basis that Marine Le Pen does not appear on the ballot paper. Each of these polls provided a different picture of what the first round of the presidentials would look like should the FN candidate fall short of the precious 500 signatures (see chart below).

IFOP, for instance, anticipates a tie in the first round between Hollande and Sarkozy, should Le Pen not be present. BVA and IPSOS see a rise in Sarkozy’s vote, but not sufficient to reach his Socialist rival. As Le Monde’s polling blog notes, one reason for IFOP’s more favourable score for Sarkozy is its omission of the smaller candidates, many of them on the Right. But that still does not explain a number of other disparities.


Summary of Polls “without Marine Le Pen”*


 *Candidates’ gains under the hypothesis that Marine Le Pen would not be able to run in the first-round

What emerges from this latest discussion is disagreement among pollsters over the use of internet panel surveys (the so-called ‘CAWI method’) in electoral polls. Interestingly, a similar debate had already taken place in March 2011 after Harris Interactive released a much commented internet-based poll showing Marine Le Pen leading the first round of the presidentials with 23 per cent of the vote.

The argument made by detractors of internet samples is that of the specific mode of recruiting panel members via commercial sites, often in exchange for blatant economic incentives such as shopping vouchers and the like. Whilst they might at a pinch be representative of the social structure of the French population – although again, without transparent reporting of sampling frames, quotas and non-response, even this has to be taken on trust – the attitudinal profile of those respondents might differ.

It might also be the case that highly motivated far right sympathizers will seize the opportunity to express their views – a phenomenon that is not limited to the Internet. Witness, for instance, the attention-grabbing headline from Le Pen’s campaign site that Marine leads the polls amongst iPhone owners. Lastly, it is often argued that internet polls might help overcome the traditional ‘shameful vote’ problem, voters being more prone to reveal their true preferences when seated in front of their computer screen, rather than engaged in conversation with a human being in a CATI setting. One cannot help but draw parallels with individuals’ apparent willingness to engage in the sort of vicious outbursts and slander common to all web discussions that they would shy well away from in less anonymous interactions.

There is empirical evidence that the internet polls consistently bias scores relative to telephone polls. Taking all election surveys since June 2011 asking for vote intentions, and controlling for the time-period in which they took place, our calculations based on 56 polls published since June 2011 indicate that Hollande tends to score around 2.5 per cent less in internet polls, and Marine Le Pen two-and-a-half points higher. Similarly, the gap between Le Pen and Sarkozy – that crucial score that defines whether the run-off becomes another referendum on democracy, as in 2002 – is around 2.5 points narrower amongst internet polls. Going on internet polls, then, the race is tighter, with Marine Le Pen threatening to overtake the incumbent president. Telephone polls suggest at this stage a more likely two-candidate run-off with Le Pen trailing.

Of course, these differences are relative. It is possible that the internet polls represent the ‘true’ (pace Bourdieu) system of social forces at play in the French electorate, and the telephone polls are overselling Hollande at the expense of Le Pen. Furthermore, such a net trade-off is simplistic – the shifts by candidate aggregating to this position are likely more complex, and again due to differences in sampling rates and latent bias.

But this again highlights the current problem. If we cannot know exactly who is answering the question, “If the election were held tomorrow, how would you vote?”, and with what weighting, it is impossible to begin even to assess which scores are factual, which are artefactual, and which are outright fiction.

France may not yet be characterised as a sondocrazia like its Southern neighbour, where polls are seen as explicit tools for electoral manipulation and a “guide” to voters; but to the extent that polls do influence voters in their suggestion of the likely winners and losers, the political information which pollsters provide as a public service should at least come with their own instruction manual.

Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi

Are the French elections a one-, two-, three-, … candidate race?

Ballots and Bullets are delighted to be publishing the first of several special blogs from the two minds behind the blog 500 signatures. Professor Jocelyn Evans and Dr Gilles Ivaldi offer their expert insight into the forthcoming Presidential elections in France. Professor Evans is currently working with Matt Goodwin from Nottingham on a study of far right supporters, that will be launched on March 8th.

If you (foolishly) rely solely upon polls to understand the state of play in an election, which polling house you choose will give you a biased view of that position. ‘House effects’ determined by sampling frames, response rates, ex-post adjustments to correct idiosyncracies of parties or candidates revealed in previous polls, and even the question asked of respondents will all give different pictures of where each competitor stands in relation to their rivals. Looking at the different French polls at the moment reveals more than just minor discrepancies: at the extreme, they seem to be covering different elections.

Compare for instance the 31 January rolling poll by IFOP- Paris-Match, BVA cross-sectional poll carried out on 30-31 January and the OpinionWay poll of 26 January.


BVA IFOP OpinionWay
François Hollande 34 31 27.5
Nicolas Sarkozy 25 23.5 24
Marine Le Pen 15 20 17
François Bayrou 12 12 14
Jean-Luc Mélenchon 8 7.5 8
Eva Joly 3 3 3
Effective no. of candidates 4.5 4.7 5.3
Mainstream* 74 69.5 68.5

* Hollande + Sarkozy + Bayrou + Joly

 Ostensibly, at around 90 days from the election, there are three very different competitions in evidence. For both IFOP and BVA, the Socialist candidate Hollande has a significant lead over the presidential incumbent. For OpinionWay, the margins are much tighter, and well within the margin of error – in the first round, at least, far from a given who will win. Secondly, the Extreme Right candidate Marine Le Pen has been presented as a clear danger to the very same incumbent president in the now clichéd ‘mirror image of 21 April (2002)’, where she moves into second place and the second round, against Hollande. For IFOP this is a very real possibility with only a 3.5 point difference – and a couple of days previously in the same daily rolling poll, a 1.5 point difference, with Le Pen on 21 percent and Sarkozy 22.5. (Although, in passing it should be noted that one of IFOP’s faults is the day-by-day variation its polls produce, suggesting all manner of dynamics many of which are simply noise.) For BVA, the likelihood of a Left-Extreme Right run-off is even more distant than a Sarkozy first-round victory.

What is more at stake for Le Pen in this poll, and in OpinionWay’s, is a very much identical image of a 22 April (2007), where the Front national candidate is knocked back into fourth place by the Centrist François Bayrou. For IFOP, Bayrou has a mountain to climb to reach third place.Finally, what of the radical Left Jean-Luc Mélenchon? He clearly occupies fifth place in all three polls, but for two is within margin of error of fourth place. For these, a repeat of 2002 where the Extreme Left reached double figures is not impossible.

If we focus on the relative strength of competitors and where the narrowest margins are to be found, BVA currently sees the fiercest competition for bronze, with gold and silver decided; IFOP sees silver under contest, but again regards gold as a given; OpinionWay sees the clustering at the top of the table, focusing on the gold medal. Another, less Olympian way of looking at the same data is to calculate the fragmentation of the presidential race. This looks at the ‘effective’ number of candidates, which is the adjusted number of candidates according to their relative electoral strength (see Note below). OpinionWay predicts a more fragmented race, given the clustering of candidate scores whereas both IFOP and BVA would anticipate an election very similar to the 2007 presidentials, where the effective number of candidates settled at 4.7. However, even OpinionWay does not come anywhere near the fragmentation of the 2002 Presidential race, which reached 8.75 candidates.

Another parallel with 2007 can be found in the mainstream candidates achieving about 7 in 10 votes in the first round. Within this candidate bloc from ‘parties of government’, it is clear from all polls that Hollande has replaced Sarkozy in his former functional role of ‘candidate for change’ – hence, Sarkozy’s latest and apparently desperate attempt by an incumbent to revert to the ‘dark horse’ challenger role. Secondly, political discontent and the economic crisis seem to be taking voters away from the ‘soft’ anti-system line symbolised by centrist candidate Bayrou in 2007 and rebalancing towards the ‘hard core’ populist campaign by the FN.

In terms of both polling scores and fragmentation, further changes are obviously to be anticipated. These scores represent the journey, rather than the destination. The direction of polling depends on the campaign and the electorates reaction against it. Fragmentation is very unlikely to increase; rather, following Chevènement’s example, a number of marginal candidates will in all likelihood abandon the race in the next few weeks. The campaign then has two possible routes: either the competition will focus on the Hollande/Sarkozy duel, thereby continuing on the bipartisan track of 2007, or, conversely, Bayrou and /or Le Pen manage to gain more political traction and widen their electoral support before April, in which case the race will line up closer to the array of four competitiors of roughly equal size, characteristic of the ‘quadrille bipolaire’ of the late 1970s. In either case, the fifth candidacy of Mélenchon simply colours in the left flank, but is very unlikely to alter fundamentally the competition. In an interesting mirror image of the 1970s, Le Pen’s shifting economic policies to the left would confirm further that the FN intends to replace the old communist party in its ‘fonction tribunitienne’ embodying a ‘negative’ counter-power within the party system. As for Bayrou, only time will tell whether he is to return to his home ground at the centre-right of the political spectrum.

The hefty differences by polling house in who is tailing whom belie, then, a relatively stable picture of a Left-Right contest, either between two candidates or two, two-candidate blocs. Neither of these resembles 2002 more than 2007 in the shape of the line-up. On this evidence,then, we would not currently be inclined to support the notion of a disruptive third-candidate presence on 22 April. A two-candidate race; a four-candidate race; but in no sense, a three-candidate race.


The effective number of parties was introduced as an index by Mikael Laakso and Rein Taagepera in their 1979 classic, “Effective Number of Parties: A Measure with Application to West Europe” in Comparative Political Studies (12:3-27). It is formally defined as the inverse of the sum of squared individual party proportions.