A waste of 20:20 foresight

April 21, 1995

Predicting presidents is a hazardous business which political scientists often avoid, but Robert Elgie now regrets not going into print several months ago with his views on the French presidential election.

"Even then I thought that Jacques Chirac would win, although he was third in the polls. But I only told a couple of colleagues," says Dr Elgie, a lecturer in Loughborough University's department of European studies who is editing a book on the election, the first round of which takes place on Sunday.

The polls now firmly support that belief, with Chirac, bidding for the presidency for the third time, leading rivals Edouard Balladur and Lionel Jospin. Winning after two defeats would parallel the achievement of retiring president Francois Mitterrand, who lost in 1965 and 1974 before winning in 1981. "Mitterrand was written off as a loser by many in the late 1970s, and a lot of people were saying the same of Chirac only months ago," says Dr Elgie.

He is more reluctant to predict the other candidate in the second round with socialist Jospin's lead over Premier Balladur well within the margin of error. But he believes neither is likely to be a second serious threat in next month's second ballot.

"It is very hard to see Jospin winning when Socialists are so desperately unpopular. He would have to win all the Green, Communist and far left votes, and then pick up some of Balladur's support and it is very hard to see that happening," he says.

Balladur's apparent demise parallels those of other early front runners. Jacques Chaban Delmas in 1974 and Raymond Barre in 1988. Dr Elgie suggests: "His decline began when he made his announcement in a manner that emphasises his role as prime minister. It made him look like the incumbent at a time when the presidency is still held by the Socialists. By contrast Chirac has called clearly for change."

If Chirac wins it will be as a consequence of his skills as a campaigner. "He managed to project the image of wanting change and appears at the same time to have attracted some of the disaffected Socialist vote by returning to interclass rhetoric used by the Gaullists in the 1960s."

He points also to the likely vote for minority parties as evidence of continuing divisions within French politics. "Le Pen nearly always does better in the final vote than he does in the polls. People do not want to admit they are voting National Front and Le Pen as a candidate has always run ahead of his party's national standings. He could win up to 14 or 15 per cent of the vote. And the Communists clearly have not been eliminated. They might win anything up to 10 per cent."

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