Although most countries use exit polls for determining winners of elections, France’s pollsters base their estimations on the actual votes counted. This is possible because of the staggered closing of all polling stations in France.
French voters head to the polls on Sunday to elect their next president in a rematch of the 2017 duel pitting Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen. Preliminary results and projections won’t become available until 8pm when the polling stations have closed. Social media will buzz hours before the polls close, rumours that Swiss or Belgian polls can predict the outcome of an election are commonplace.
Such polls are banned in France. These polls are often incorrect. This was again the case two weeks back, in the second round of voting. Rumours rumoured a tie between Macron et Le Pen, but it turned out that Le Pen was actually four points ahead.
At midnight on Friday, France enters a period of “electoral silence” during which French media are barred from quoting candidates or publishing opinion polls to ensure they don’t unduly influence voters. These rules also apply to candidates and their teams, who are strictly barred from campaigning in the last 44 hours before voting ends on Sunday.
On Election Day, all polling stations on mainland France close at 7pm for most areas and 8pm for larger cities like Paris. This one hour delay, which was two hours for past elections, makes it crucial that pollsters can crunch numbers in order to project the winner before the eight-hour clock strikes.
Unlike other democracies where projections are made based on exit polls and projected winners, French pollsters use actual ballots to calculate their results. These estimates can be updated as the count continues throughout the night.
‘They use interviews, we use ballots’
“The main difference with an exit poll is that instead of asking people outside the polling station how they voted, we look straight at their ballots,” says Mathieu Doiret of the Ipsos polling institute, FRANCE 24’s partner for the presidential election. “This is because we must wait until the polling stations close at 7pm. Exit polls, however, can continue throughout the day.
Like other pollsters, Ipsos relies on feedback from hundreds of polling stations scattered across France. This sample was chosen in order to reflect the variety of French constituencies and also match the result from the previous presidential election.
The idea behind the sample is to not only find areas with voting patterns that match the rest of France, but to also have polling stations indicative of trends, such as to determine if certain candidates’ bastions turn out large or swing in one direction – then create the most comprehensive picture.
“The British pollsters pick representative samples of polling stations to compare with previous elections, in order for them to project their results,” said Doiret. His institute also conducts surveys in the UK. Doiret says that the only thing that differs is their primary material. They use interviews and we use ballots. Doiret also notes that it’s possible for voters to not tell interviewers which ballot they voted. He also mentions that exit polls are used in France to assess each candidate’s support by age or profession. “But exit polls tend to be slightly less accurate, because people can refuse to answer our questions whereas they can’t refuse to have their ballots counted.”
France has used the same voting system for generations, requiring voters to cast paper ballots in person or by proxy and then counting them by hand. In polling stations sampled by Ipsos and its peers, an official calls the pollster after every 100 ballots counted to report the results. To make elaborate projections, special software compares the data with past election figures.
The system has allowed pollsters to predict the outcome of all recent elections – including the wafer-thin margin that allowed far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to edge out the Socialists’ Lionel Jospin in a shock first-round result in 2002.
“We are yet to see pollsters unable to declare a winner, or the second-round finalists, at 8pm,” says Doiret. “Only once was there some confusion, in 1974 [Valéry Giscard d’Estaing won that race by just 400,000 votes, the narrowest margin yet]. “There was no confusion in 1974” [Valéry Giscard d’Estaing won that race by just 400,000 votes, the narrowest margin yet]. It almost happened after the first round this year as a surge in support for third-man Jean-Luc Melenchon in urban constituencies saw pollsters rush to adjust their projections after 8pm, bringing him very close to Le Pen’s score.
” Things can be tricky when candidates perform significantly better in certain types of elections,” Doiret says. “In Melenchon’s case, his support in rural areas was largely unchanged from 2017, whereas it surged in some urban areas.