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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.

Published inElectionsEuropean PoliticsFrance 2012


  1. Great post, thanks for posting. Is there any evidence to suggest that polls under-estimate FN? Simply put, are people reluctant to admit to pollsters that they’ll vote for Le Pen?

    • Jocelyn Evans Jocelyn Evans

      Less reluctance to admit now than in the time of Jean-Marie Le Pen – Marine regarded as a more ‘acceptable’ face to the Extreme Right. Also, problematically, polling institutes used to correct for under-reporting FN / JM le Pen voting, but never said quite how they did this. For Marine, they claim (from local election evidence) that there is no need to correct. Why different polling institutes have such different estimates is another question entirely!

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