Why the French election result was such a surprise


PARIS — It was one of the greatest political upsets in French history, and an outcome that pollsters failed to predict.

When far-right supporters gathered for their election watch party in Paris on Sunday, they were ready to celebrate a historic night. The far right had been comfortably ahead in the first round of voting, with the support of 1 in 3 voters, and second-round polls showed them placing first again. A majority of seats in the National Assembly, and a far-right government, appeared to be within reach.

But Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party ended up not only falling short of a majority but coming in third, behind a surging left and even President Emmanuel Macron’s ailing centrist alliance.

Why was the result such a surprise?

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Polling firms say their models weren’t able to fully capture the shifting dynamics in the days before the vote — either the late efforts to block the far right with a coordinated “republican front” or an apparent softening of enthusiasm for National Rally.

The far right’s chances shrank significantly in the week between the voting rounds, as left-wing and centrist candidates who had placed third in the first round on June 30 voluntarily withdrew from more than 200 runoffs. The idea was to prevent splitting the vote in a way that would have enabled far-right victories.

There were only three days between the finalization of the candidate list and the legally mandated polling blackout before the election.

“The biggest challenge for us is time,” Ipsos Research director Mathieu Gallard told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Although Ipsos and many other firms accurately estimated the national vote share for National Rally in first round, the statistical models used to forecast local contests in the second round overestimated far-right wins. Ipsos’s final survey of 10,101 registered voters on July 3 and 4 projected that National Rally would win between 175 and 205 seats. The possibility of the far right securing the 289 seats needed for a majority appeared to be diminishing.

“My assumption is that the dynamic still progressed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Gallard said.

National Rally ended up with 143 seats.

French pollsters misjudged the resistance to the far right in the last election, too — but in the opposite direction. In 2022, the leftist and centrist alliances ended up getting fewer seats than expected, below the lowest end of the range for any survey.

This time, when results came in, it was clear that the strategy to prevent a far-right surge had been more successful than anticipated in the polls. Antoine Jardin, a political researcher, said there was “a strong transfer of votes” in a way that consolidated the opposition.

In head-to-head contests between the left and far right in the second round, between 43 and 54 percent of people who had initially supported a Macron-backed candidate voted for a left-wing candidate, according to France’s public broadcaster, which commissioned an Ipsos-Talan exit poll.

And in districts with second-round contests between a Macron-backed candidate and the far right, 72 percent of voters who had supported the left-wing New Popular Front alliance turned out to support the centrists.

The far right may have also lost some momentum among its own supporters in the week between the two rounds of voting, said Pierre Mathiot, a political researcher.

Hastily recruited after Macron unexpectedly called snap elections last month, some far-right candidates struggled in debates on television and in other public appearances. “Not all of them were very well prepared,” said Renaud Dehousse, director of SAIS Europe.

“I think that for a small portion of voters, this caused a rethink,” Mathiot said.

In the wake of National Rally’s defeat at the polls, questions about its ability to govern are unlikely to wane. The party had hoped that it would be busy this week preparing to share power with Macron. Instead, the Paris prosecutor’s office said Tuesday that it had opened a preliminary investigation into the possibility that Le Pen illicitly financed her unsuccessful 2022 presidential election campaign.

Clement reported from Washington. Lenny Bronner and Elie Petit contributed to this report.



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