2007-02-23 Sarah Elzas
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Poll Frenzy in French Press

Presidental Election - "Sarko", "Sego" or "Le Pen"?Presidental Election - "Sarko", "Sego" or "Le Pen"?
The French presidential elections are two months away, but newspapers and magazines are already trying to say who will win…. Opinion polls abound- almost one a day, pitting the front runners, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royale against others who are not even on the ballot yet. The official list of candidates won't be firmed up until the end of March. Sarah Elzas looks at the phenomenon of opinion polls that appear constantly on the front pages of French newspapers and magazines.

Thierry Borsa is an editor at Le Parisien, a daily French paper that's been publishing voter intention results regularly for the past several months. He leafs through Wednesday's paper, which has a survey on the top of the front page, showing Segolene Royale 4 points higher than Sarkozy in the first round of the election.

He explains that Sarkozy was polling at 55 percent and Royale at 44 percent. Now the results are different. This of course, with thirty percent of respondents who are undecided. Polls are everywhere, but they haven't proven very accurate in the past. In 1995 survey results favoredPrime Minister Edouard Balladur. Yet he was beat out by Lionel Jospin, who then lost to his challenger, Jacques Chirac. In 2002 the same thing- no polls predicted that Jean-Marie Le Pen would enter the second round of voting, but he did, pushing out Jospin. Despite their inaccuracies, politicians and journalists continue to commission and use opinion polls.

"There is in France like in any other country a controversy about the use of newspapers can use of the figures to influence voters… They want to be the first to publish the new uh- new results. New opinion poll results. "

Segolene Royal in televised debateSegolene Royal in televised debate
Matthieu Doiret is the survey manager at CSA, a polling institute that is regularly commissioned by Le Parisien to conduct voting intention polls. Doiret explains that he looks for trends. These days the trend is Segolene Royale losing points

And the opposite trend was the increase voting intention for Francois Bayrou on the same period.

Francois Bayrou, a center-right candidate, has been making headlines, polling recently around 15 percent. Doiret is quick to point out that the surveys are not predictions, but its always good when they're right.

We learn a lot from our mistakes and try to make the best of what we already know about people's opinion.

Jean Chiche is studies public opinion and surveys at Science Politique. He says voters decide in the last days of an election. If you look at the numbers from a week before the 2002 election, it was obvious that Jospin was going down. The numbers were there, but people weren't looking:

"There would have had to be imaginative analysis that transcended political analysis. Very few people did that. But that doesn't mean that the trends are false. They are real. They are correct."

Chiche does not discredit all surveys. In fact, his own organization, the CEVIPOF, produces a "political barometer" of French politics, which he says digs deep into the issues concerning the French electorate. He dismisses the more basic surveys based on small sample sizes, like the ones conducted by CSA for Le Parisien.

Poster of Nicolas SarkozyPoster of Nicolas Sarkozy
"What we see daily in newspapers are surveys based on 8-hundred to one-thousand people, which gives us margins of error that vary between 3-point-one and five-percent. So if we say this candidate goes up by one, goes down by two, or up by three points… it has absolutely no statistical importance."

The numbers may not have statistical value, but they sell newspapers-at least according to the woman who sells papers in the kiosk outside of the CSA offices in Paris. She explains that she doesn't pay much attention to the surveys herself, but it sells papers, so she doesn't mind.

"The polls that constantly reproduce the same numbers and that show that the situation is stable are journalistically not very interesting. And for our readers, it's not as interesting than a survey that shows that things are changing…. But we're not looking for movement everywhere. We're not telling them what to say to the pollsters! We are just here to explain the evolution to our readers, if there is evolution"

So the papers want change, because that makes the news. But do the numbers influence voters? No, says Jean Chiche.

"I don't think that surveys have any influence on electoral choices. No more than an editorial from a political commentator. A survey is an element of information among others …. It provides a kind of background noise... I don't think they have an influence on the outcome of the vote. It's a tool like any other."

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elections, france, nicolas sarkozy, segolene royale

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