Spin and Reality of the French Elections

PARIS — The results of Sunday’s legislative elections in France are being spun by much of the French and also the American media as a “success” for the French Socialist Party (PS) and a “setback” for new French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). This depiction amounts to a sort of magic trick: an optical illusion resulting from the application of two distorting lenses to the actual outcome, both of them provided by France’s notoriously unreliable public opinion firms.

The first of these distorting lenses consists of the predictions made by the polling firms over the last week of an impending “blue tsunami”: blue for the color of the French Right, which some estimates had winning upwards of 500 seats in the 577 seat French National Assembly and thus virtually sweeping the Socialists out of existence. After the first round of the legislative elections on June 10, the CSA polling firm, for example, projected that the PS would win only between 60 and 90 seats in the new Assembly. In light of such dire predictions for the Socialists, even the very sound thumping that they in fact received could be readily spun into not only a satisfactory outcome, but even a “kind of” victory.

The second distorting lens was the product of an outright inflation of the Socialist result by the very same polling firms on election night. As in every French election, when the talking heads began talking on French television Sunday night after the closing of the polls, their chatter referred exclusively to projections provided by the polling firms, not to any actual returns. Thus all the major French television networks had the Socialists “winning” over 200 seats. On the basis of estimates provided by CSA, for instance, France 3 public television had the Socialists “winning” some 224 seats.

In actual fact, they ended up winning 186. The UMP won 313 seats and the allied New Center party another 22: giving President Sarkozy a very comfortable 335 seat majority in the Assembly. All the parties of the Right and “Center-Right” taken together won 345 seats or some 60 percent of the 577 seats in the Assembly. All the parties of the Left taken together (including the Greens) won some 227 seats or just over 39 percent of the available seats.

The below graphic from the French Ministry of the Interior shows the distribution of seats in the new National Assembly, with the “Right” depicted in shades of blue and the “Left” in shades of red and pink (the PS).

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In light of the Socialist’s Party’s ostensible electoral “success,” Socialist Party Chairman François Hollande declared triumphantly that France “will walk on both its legs.” This may well be so, but, as the graphic makes clear, one of these legs is considerably shorter than the other.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. He is a WPR contributing editor.