Race could throw up some fresh surprises

As France goes to the polls this weekend for the first round of presidential elections, voters are wondering if the result will be as surprising as it was five years ago.

Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen came second then ahead of Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, by a nail-biting 200,000 votes. Jacques Chirac ended up beating Mr Le Pen in a second-round landslide, but by then the shocking ballot result had left a scar on the French psyche.

Some experts predict another surprise on Sunday. Opinion polls suggest a three-horse race for the Elysée between Nicolas Sarkozy on the right, Ségolène Royal on the left, and François Bayrou in the centre. Mr Le Pen also continues to draw attention, threatening a repeat of 2002.

Five years ago, voters seemed to lose interest in the campaign, as abstentions, spoilt or blank ballot papers and votes for far-right or far-left parties rose to a record level of more than half the ballots cast.

This time a new generation of younger candidates has sparked interest in the campaign. Viewing figures for political television shows have hit new highs. Voter registration has increased by a record 4.2 per cent.

Pollsters predict that Mr Le Pen will be eliminated on Sunday. But the former para­trooper’s poll scores are higher than in 2002 and his pet themes, such as national identity and immigration, have become more mainstream and been adopted by other candidates. In Nice yesterday, Mr Le Pen, who is polling at about 15 per cent, attacked Mr Sarkozy for copying his ideas. “They want our votes, but not our faces,” he said.

The greatest unknown has come from the centre, as Mr Bayrou’s late surge in popularity has raised the prospect of him beating Ms Royal to enter a run-off against Mr Sarkozy, which polls suggest he would win.

“The score of François Bayrou is very elastic. He could receive anything from 13 to 23 per cent, which makes him the number one uncertainty in this election,” says Pierre Giacometti, head of polling agency Ipsos.

The stunning rise of Mr Bayrou, a former teacher and part-time racing horse breeder, is considered a symptom of disillusionment with the centre right UMP and the Socialists. He has won support from voters frightened of Mr Sarkozy and unconvinced by Ms Royal.

France’s stringent media law could have a last-minute impact on voting. For two weeks, television and radio have been forced to give all candidates equal air time. So Mr Le Pen has had as much attention as Mr Sarkozy, Ms Royal and Mr Bayrou.

However, from midnight on Friday, a campaign black-out is imposed. No polls can be published until voting stops at 8pm on Sunday, and candidates must retreat from the campaign trail, giving voters time for reflection.

A big concern in this election is the high level of voter uncertainty, estimated at between 30 and 40 per cent of the electorate. This wavering is seen as strongest among those who might vote for Mr Bayrou.

Only 39 per cent of those leaning towards voting for him are considered sure to do so. Supporters of Mr Sarkozy and Ms Royal are 70 per cent sure to vote for them, while Mr Le Pen’s support is the most solid at 82 per cent.

However, Mr Giacometti says the focus on floating voters is exaggerated. “The true level is 7 to 8 per cent of people who still have no idea how they will vote. The rest are just hesitating,” he says.

After the trauma of Mr Le Pen’s result in 2002, tactical voting is likely to be stronger than usual tomorrow, particularly among leftwing voters. Worries about a second round of Le Pen versus Sarkozy are expected to convince many leftwingers to vote for Ms Royal, rather than other contenders, as the latter would in effect fritter their votes away.

The geographical map of French politics could also be redrawn. Mr Sarkozy, a former mayor of the plush Paris suburb of Neuilly, does not share Mr Chirac’s attachment to farmers. So Ms Royal, president of the rural region of Poitou-Charente, is hoping to swing some central and western areas back to the left.

Paris’s chattering classes are expected to swing to Mr Bayrou, while Mr Sarkozy and Mr Le Pen will be competing for the extreme-right heartlands in the north-east, from Lille to Alsace, and the south, along the Mediterranean coast.

An important part of the election will be in France’s overseas territories, including New Caledonia in the Pacific ocean; Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean; and Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

Accounting for 2.1 per cent of French voters, these distant departments, which in 2002 gave Mr Chirac more support than the mainland, could influence the final outcome.

Many territories to the west of France will cast their ballots today. If they voted on Sunday it would be possible to know the result from the mainland, which is in a different time zone.

This has caused some disruption in Guadeloupe and Martinique, where the local television station was this week forced to abandon plans for an election night show on Saturday and delay it until Sunday to avoid influencing voters on the mainland.

In France on Friday, each of the candidates made their final appeals to voters and then began the wait for a verdict.

The latest polls gave Mr Sarkozy support of 30-27 per cent, while Ms Royal was between 22.5 and 26 per cent and Mr Bayrou ranged from 18.5 to 20 per cent.

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