France’s Right Primaries: What to Expect

By Pascale C. Siegel

November 17, 2016

On November 20 and 27, France’s right-wing party “Les Republicains” will hold its first primary to designate its candidate to next year’s presidential election. The primary is open to all registered voters regardless of party affiliation as long as they pledge to support the party’s platform and pay a $2 fee.

Since July, surveys have consistently shown Alain Juppe, a moderate technocrat, in the lead, ahead of ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy. In third place comes Francois Fillon, also a technocrat, who once was President Sarkozy’s prime minister. Four additional candidates are not believed to be in contention. So, are the polls correct in predicting a Juppe victory?

The short answer is “no” for both technical and political reasons.

As recent experience reconfirmed, polling is maybe more art than science. Even more so in this primary as the pool of likely voters is so uncertain.

  • These are the first Republicains primaries, so there is no history to determine the pool of likely voters.
  • Survey institutes have used different questions to determine those most likely to go vote. The most serious are only counting as likely voters those who declare themselves “certain” to vote on November 20.
  • At most 10% of eligible voters are expected to vote. To obtain a reasonable sample size of likely voters (between 800 and 1,000 voters), pollsters must interview a much larger group of individuals. This is more expensive and time-consuming. Many polls have taken shortcuts relying on too small samples.

Last but not least, for two reasons the political climate may bring to the polls some left-wing voters who could influence the results. First, early polling shows the incumbent, Socialist President Hollande, will lose in the first round of the presidential election, and the second round would see a duel between the candidate of “Les Republicains” and the Far-right National Front. Second, Nicolas Sarkozy, former president and party leader, is a lightning rod in French politics, in no small part because of his strategy of competition with the National Front. Many on the left cringe about the possibility of having to vote either for Nicolas Sarkozy or Marine le Pen. Hence the idea of selecting a more moderate candidate than Sarkozy. There is evidence this strategy is more than just venting. According to the most serious polls, about 10% of likely primary voters are from the left and they tend to favor Alain Juppe over Sarkozy. Should they effectively mobilize on both election days, they could tip the balance against the former President.