|One of France's leading polling institutes last night presented its latest findings on vote intentions for the Presidential race, and strikingly placed Marine Le Pen a mere two percentage points behind Nicolas Sarkozy. In New Year polls, the principal dynamic has been one of resserrement - the tightening of margins between the main candidates. However, the IFOP poll for Paris-Match is noteworthy because it potentially indicates the beginning of a reversal of fortunes for the two main Right-wing candidates. After a climb in the polls due mainly to his perceived statesman's performance at Cannes and subsequent Euro-crisis summits, Sarkozy has now seen a one-point drop. Conversely, Marine Le Pen, whose scores seemed to be flatlining in late autumn and Christmas, has now climbed back to consistently above 20 percent in the IFOP poll - one of her highest scores to date.|
Inevitably, we need to exercise caution in extrapolating so soon after what could after all turn out to be a very cursory inflection. Whilst polls provide much commentary fodder in campaigns, reacting to every shift as though it were game-changing rapidly achieves nothing in the way of analytical clarity. As a matter of fact, OpinionWay have just released a new poll that counters the results of IFOP by showing Sarkozy reclaim the lead over the right-wing camp with 25 per cent support, followed by Le Pen with 17 per cent and Bayrou with 15 per cent.
A quick glance at averaged polling scores published by all institutes for the presidential frontrunners since last summer might help correct some current perceptions. First, Hollande has been losing ground since his winning the PS primaries in October. Such a return to reality was of course to be anticipated considering the electoral ‘heights’ being promised by over-enthusiastic voters. The New Year now shows a relative stabilization in voting intentions for the Socialist hopeful. Nevertheless, Hollande is still leading the presidential horserace by a comfortable margin, particularly in the run-off where he is expected to trounce his right-wing rival.
Voting intentions 2012 – All polling institutes (averaged polls)
On the other hand, the centrist candidate Bayrou is the ascendant. The upward trend in popular support for the MODEM leader started in early December 2011 after he confirmed publicly his intention to run again in 2012. Now that Bayrou has lifted the veil on some of the key measures put forward in his economic program, it will be interesting to monitor the public reaction to his strategy for budget deficit reduction, tax raises and freeze on public spending.
Finally, on the right of the political spectrum, the smoothed lines point to a narrowing of Sarkozy’s lead over Le Pen who could indeed find herself within striking distance of the outgoing president any time soon. Sarkozy’s numbers began to fall in late November with no sign even of a momentary recovery. This turn of presidential fate coincided with the release of alarming forecasts for unemployment in the last quarter of 2011 and the announcement by Fillon’s government of another package of painful debt-reduction measures.
Le Pen on the other hand has made a conspicuous come-back in the presidential game after presenting the financial assessment of her 2012 platform earlier this month, but her ratings began to improve again just before Christmas. The FN candidate seems to be capitalizing on her aggressive populist economic policies at a time when many voters are severely hit by the recession. In fact, if one adds together the current levels of profound pessimism and political discontent in the public, the economic gloom and rising unemployment, things could hardly be going better for the extreme right. Unless the Euro collapses?
Back to the polls, double the caution is needed, given the sensationalist and divisive nature of Marine Le Pen's candidacy - predictions of a ‘reverse 21 April’, this time with a Left-wing candidate against the FN leader, rather than the Gaullist-FN run-off in 2002, are dangerously compelling as the answer to the $64,000 question: will Marine Le Pen reach the second round of the 2012 elections? Predicting this on the basis of daily poll shifts is speculative coin-flipping.
There are other good reasons to withhold judgement on what this new two-point gap means. It is quite possibly a so-called 'house effect', in other words a bias linked to the methodology employed by the polling institute. IFOP's three-day rolling panel can potentially introduce blips in otherwise smooth trends, just as such blips can occur in fortnightly or monthly polls. It would be worth awaiting a complete replacement of the panel in three days to see if this level remains. Furthermore, of all the main polling institutes, IFOP's results have always been amongst the most favourable to the FN candidate. Computing a simple average of all voting intentions for Le Pen by pollster over the past 12 months shows both Harris and IFOP ranging higher than all other major institutes at 21.3 and 19.8 per cent respectively, compared with a mean of 18.2 across all French pollsters.
Le Pen voting intentions since January 2011 – by polling institute
Since the headache of correcting Jean-Marie Le Pen's polling scores to reflect the under-estimation that it almost always suffered, at least until the last days of polling, different polling institutes' adjustments for his daughter are still unclear. However, LH2, a polling institute which has precisely always provided punishing estimates of Marine Le Pen's likely vote, some three to four percentage points below the average, saw her intended vote jump from 13 to 17 percent overnight in January. Either LH2 has made significant adjustment to its method, or even the harshest of institutes is seeing a major rise in her fortunes.
Surprisingly, this is not the first time in the recent campaign period that Marine Le Pen has come within two points of Sarkozy in the IFOP poll. On 12 January, Sarkozy found himself at 23.5 percent, Le Pen at 21.5 percent. As the first figures from the new rolling poll, little was made of this. The worry for UMP supporters now is that the gains from his statesman period in Cannes and elsewhere dried up very quickly. The triple A downgrade has put paid to any further gains to be made from playing the 'economic protector' card. Sarkozy consequently needs something new in his campaign armoury. Increasingly some in his own party are calling for him to use that most obvious of weapons – declare his candidacy. Two UMP deputies, Damien Meslot and Jacques Domergue, have publicly demanded that their President declare now. Others believe he is right to hold off, to ensure that his campaign is short and energetic. The President himself clearly believes that he can make political capital out of other policy areas, such as internet piracy and his high-risk 'social VAT' initiative, and continue to fulfill his packed presidential schedule of engagements before finally reverting to candidate status.
Sarkozy's eventual declaration should produce a rise of some magnitude in his own polls. Until we can see what size this is, it is difficult to predict how that will place him vis-à-vis Le Pen, or indeed his Socialist rival. We should not forget François Hollande, of course, still leading in the first round, and magisterial, numbers-wise, in the second. As polls stand at the moment, however, the incremental, banalisé creep of Marine Le Pen towards second place that so many feared early last year is one possible interpretation of the current state of play. The next couple of weeks and polls should confirm if it is the correct one.
Whatever comes out of future polls, the field of competition is now taking shape, and is profoundly influenced by the desire for political change. At the moment, Hollande seems to be in a position to personify this change in the eyes of a majority of voters. A ‘reverse 21 April’ that would bring him head-to-head with Le Pen in the run-off not only would be testimony to this desire for political alternation but also would reveal the amplitude of the now famous anti-sarkozysme – voters seeking revenge by punishing the former champion of the self-assertive Right.