France Heads to the Polls: Pollsters Throw in the Towel in Neck-and-neck Race

With millions still undecided, pollsters can't forecast which candidate will win, but commentators say a low voter turnout could work in Le Pen's favor

A French voter card in front of pictures of the candidates for the French presidential election, April 22, 2017.
PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/REUTERS

PARIS, FRANCE – Forty-seven million French people are eligible to vote on Sunday which of the 11 presidential candidates goes to a runoff, in the culmination of a political season that was full of surprises. When the results come in on Sunday evening, some of these surprises could send shock waves through the currency markets, the European Union institutions and Europe as a whole.

All 67,000 polling stations will be under especially heavy guard by hundreds of thousands of police, soldiers, municipal inspectors and private security guards. Over 50,000 gendarmes will be deployed at sensitive sites in Paris, particularly the lysée Palace, some 100 meters from the terror attack in which a policeman was killed on Thursday by Kalashnikov fire.

The four leading candidates are the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who has announced her intention to quit the European Union and close France’s borders, in defiance of the Schengen Agreement; the right-wing Republican Francois Fillon, who said he would fire thousands of government officials and teachers, cut public health insurance and withdraw from the European front against Syrian President Bashar Assad; the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has pledged to withdraw from all European covenants to which France is a signatory, nationalize public corporations and raise private corporate tax to as much as 80 percent of profits; and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, who many economists said has presented a utopian economic platform that France cannot afford, but who remains the only candidate whose election will prevent chaos throughout Europe.

Pollsters concede that because the predicted number of votes among each of these four candidates falls within the possibility of statistical error, they can’t forecast which two will win the highest number of actual votes and go to a runoff. Television networks are preparing to announce that they are unable to call the results in the 8 P.M. broadcast on Sunday night. The polls will close at 7 P.M. in many districts in France, and one hour later in Paris.

A huge number of voters – 29 percent according to various samples – have said they will only decide on Sunday who to vote for, if they vote at all. That could mean very low voter turnout, which, according to commentators, works in Le Pen’s favor, and after her for Macron and Fillon, who have high support among retirees, more of whom tend to fulfill their civic duty and vote than do younger adults.

France's Interior Ministry said the number of registered voters has been increasing and notes the great interest the media has generated in the close race, but pundits say millions will stay home, among other reasons because they feel no candidate represents them. Half of those undecided whether to vote on Sunday said they might vote in the runoff, two weeks away.

The lowest voter turnout in French elections so far was in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, made it to the second round by beating the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, by 0.5 percent of the votes. In that election, 28.4 percent of voters stayed home.

In an expanded sample of 11,600 registered voters, voter turnout reached 72 percent – the same as in 2002.

The National Front based its campaign strategy as far back as November on a low voter turnout and tried to keep the campaign as somnolent as possible in an attempt to ensure a supermajority for Marine Le Pen on the first round, as Charles de Gaulle did in 1958. But Fillon’s determination on the right, and the anti-establishment momentum of Mélenchon on the left, has forced Le Pen to respond so as not to find herself out of the running in a second round.

One piece of information shared at a special press briefing Saturday at the Paris municipality raised the possibility that most of the hesitant voters will indeed sit out this election: the number of voters who submitted an absentee ballot – the only way to ensure their vote if they intend to be away from their polling station – stood at 47,000, which was 20 percent lower than in the 2012 election. The municipal spokesman said this could mean a low voter turnout, but by the same token could mean a larger number of Parisians are planning to stay in the city despite the weekend vacation.

A huge, highly visible security contingent is guarding Macron, the only one of the four leading candidates to oppose any close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Saturday, the conspiracy theory was promulgated that the attack on the Champs-Elysées was organized by Putin to help Le Pen’s electoral chances.

Uncertainly about the results of Sunday's election only increases when pollsters try to get around the question of the vote itself. To the question: “Which candidate conforms to your image of the office of president of the republic?” more than 70 percent say Fillon. When asked: “Which candidate do you personally sympathize with most," the majority said Mélenchon. When asked: “During the campaign, which candidate addressed problems that really bother you,” most said Le Pen. And when asked, "Which candidate made you feel most optimistic about France’s future and your future,” most chose Macron. It seems that the uncertainly will persist until the moment the results are announced.