One of France’s leading newspapers has given up on public opinion polls ahead of France’s presidential election in April, and its reasoning, it says, comes down to two recent, unforeseen events: President Trump and Brexit.
“We have been thinking about it for some time now, especially since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump,” Stephane Albouy, Le Parisien’s editor-in-chief, told AFP last week. Albouy added that they “want to avoid giving the sort of commentary that accompanies a horse race, always focusing on who is in the lead.”
France’s upcoming presidential election is one of the most decisive of its kind in the country’s recent history. With widespread economic and political malaise in Europe and mounting concerns over terrorism providing familiar temptations for the rise of anti-establishment populism, a far-right win from the National Front could put the future of the European Union at risk.
Already, French voting has upset common trends taken for granted by pollsters. Few predicted extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen would be considered a viable candidate, let alone a frontrunner. Even fewer predicted she’d be running against center-right candidate Francois Fillon, who, once dubbed “Mr. Nobody,” beat out favorites former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alan Juppé.
“Commissioning opinion polls now is useless because they will have no bearing on the final result.”
In what it says is an effort to create a deeper understanding of France’s shifting political landscape, Le Parisien, a daily newspaper focused on France’s capital and its surrounding suburbs, will not be commissioning opinion polls during the election, and will instead focus on their “on-the-ground” reporting.
Le Parisien’s senior political reporter, Philippe Martinat said that polling wasn’t helpful in terms of understanding the election because popular opinion has yet to fully develop. Journalist Adrien Sénécat writing for Le Monde voiced a similar distrust of polling in November, though the newspaper will continue polling throughout the election.
“Commissioning opinion polls now is useless because they will have no bearing on the final result,” said Martinat. “This doesn’t mean that we are against polling, but we prefer to focus our political analysis based on what we see and capture on the ground, rather than rely on opinions that have yet to fully develop over the course of the campaign.
Though the focus on “on-the-ground” reporting was reiterated by editor-in-chief Albouy in an interview with FranceInter radio, Albouy also mentioned they would be saving “tens of thousands of euros,” by not doing polls. Additionally, Le Parisien reporters would still be able to comment on those commissioned by other outlets.
This muddled approach highlights the financial challenges confronting most French newsrooms rather than the journalistic limits of polling, according to Esteban Pratviel, a research manager for IFOP, a French public opinion and market research company commissioned by leading newspapers in France.
“Newspapers have already strongly reduced their commissions of polls for a certain time because the French press is in crisis,” said Pratviel alluding to the drop in circulation in French press in the last decade. “Other clients have… started to replace newspapers in commissioning public opinion polls, especially for this election.”
French newspapers have decidedly less disposable income than in previous elections to spend on polling. Between 2009 and 2013, revenue of French newspaper publishing dropped by almost a fourth, from 7.4 billion dollars to 5.6 billion, according to the most recent data released by Statista, an online data company. The company predicts revenue to fall a further 22 percent, from approximately 4.86 billion to 3.74 billion dollars.
Declining newspaper revenues, unpredictable politics, and underlying questions about the future of the French media are all seemingly converging during April’s pivotal election.
“The election will have a major impact on the whole French media landscape,”said Alice Antheaume, the executive dean of Sciences Po Journalism School in Paris in a recent report for NiemanLab. “The news competition will be fierce. We won’t know who’ll have the greatest impact until the final runoff results. France’s legacy media companies are not so strong.”
Specifically in an election that is so uncertain, Pratviel worries that French media can’t replicate the breadth of representation of widespread surveys.
“In our polls we interview people from all backgrounds, all horizons, we are able to represent those who are not represented in the media,” said Pratviel. “If we look at the elections so far, the polls have always been right. Oftentimes the errors will be in the analysis of the polls.”
Le Parisien is the first large newspaper to turn away from opinion polls ahead of April’s election, but they most likely won’t be the last, according to Pratviel. If other newspapers follow suit and public opinion surveys decline, the pollster anticipates French voters will end up with a murkier understanding of its political landscape rather than a clearer one.
Alexa Liautaud is a French-American reporter based in New York City.