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22 April 2007

Lying to the pollsters

Journalist and long-time French resident Colin Randall gives us his take on the presidential electio

By Colin Randall

A few months before she died, my mother told me: “You remember all those years I said I’d vote Liberal if I thought they had a chance? Guess what? I did anyway.”

A Gallic version of my mother’s hidden spirit of defiance has been at play in French politics in recent years. Whereas she was prepared to defy family tradition and expectation, and go quietly against the grain in a Durham constituency where no one but Labour was likely to win, disconcerting numbers of French voters give a respectable answer to pollsters while secretly plotting to vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National.

It is not hard to see why they wouldn’t want to shout about it. If you cannot exactly be a moderate racist, you can certainly be a closet one. So as we approach France’s moment of truth in Sunday’s first round of the presidential elections, much attention focuses on what share of the vote Le Pen is likely to collect.

By law, opinion polls cannot be published from midnight on the Friday before the vote. But the last two I saw put Le Pen down one point on 13 per cent and up two at 14 per cent, not far behind the centrist Francois Bayrou but in each case theoretically too low to offer a real threat to Nicolas Sarkozy or even Segolene Royal.

But if we have become accustomed to a fair degree of accuracy from British polls, the same cannot be said of the French variety. The typical sample is about 950 voters and the research is conducted by telephone – but only to fixed lines and not to anyone in the Dom-Toms, overseas departments and territories with their 2.3 million voters.

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Throw in the margin for error of around three per cent either way, and a consistently high level of don’t knows and won’t says, and you get a good idea of why the more astute analysts insist that we can be sure of very little from the findings published throughout the first part of the campaign.

And that brings us back to the tendency of French people, more than other nationalities, to lie when attempts are made to get them to declare voting intentions. This is especially so, of course, among those who fully intend to vote FN but have no wish to broadcast the fact.

It explains why Le Pen burst through into the second round in 2002, inflicting humiliation on the Parti Socialiste and its candidate, Lionel Jospin, and forcing anyone opposed to Chirac to look around for nosepegs to be worn while voting for him to keep the far right out.

The truth is that no one really knows whether he is capable of doing it again on Sunday, or indeed whether the French will ditch the socialist all over again but plump instead for Bayrou. After seeking to dismiss his challenge in the early stages, plenty of pundits have come to accept that he would stand a strong chance of becoming president if only he could overtake Royal in the first round.

My mother, like my French wife and her late mother, would have liked Chirac, for his charm and inspite of all his bullying and alleged corruption. She would have feared Sarko, as do many French people of perfectly moderate disposition, and been unsure about Sego.

Even if immigration had been a concern to her, she could not have forgiven herself for supporting Le Pen. But she’d certainly have told my dad she was voting Sego and put her cross against Bayrou instead. Just to give him a chance.

Visit Colin’s blogs at http://www.francesalut.com/ and http://www.salutsunderland.com