PARIS (Reuters) - After Donald Trump’s shock win in the United States, French pollsters and pundits are now warning that surprises should not be ruled out in France’s presidential election next year because of an untested primary system and a fragmented political field.
With poll after poll showing far-right leader Marine Le Pen emerging as one of the top two candidates in the first round but losing the second-round run-off, commentators have presented ex-prime minister Alain Juppe’s victory as almost guaranteed.
Incumbent Francois Hollande, who has yet to confirm his candidacy, is the most unpopular president in history, polls show no other leftist candidate has much of a chance, and former conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy is also widely unpopular.
That would leave the way to the Elysee Palace wide open for Juppe, a moderate conservative seen as a safe pair of hands. Or so the story goes in the French media.
“Many people are acting as if Alain Juppe will for certain be the next president. And that’s exasperating people, because it’s seen as a denial of democracy,” Francois Miquet-Marty of pollster Viavoice told Reuters. “That’s where the real surprise could come.”
Just as in the United States and Britain, where opinion polls and the media presented a Trump defeat and a pro-European Union vote as a sure thing, French voters do not like to be told in advance what the result of an election will be, he added.
That has played into the hands of outsiders before, and it could benefit National Front leader Le Pen this time.
Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly reached the second round runoff in 2002 and former president Jacques Chirac beat Edouard Balladur, long the media favourite, in 1995.
Next year’s election is also one of the most open in decades because for the first time both mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties will pick a candidate via a primary system open to any registered voter, making likely outcomes harder to measure for pollsters.
“We must take opinion polls with a big pinch of salt,” Sciences Po Bordeaux university professor Jean Petaux said.
On Wednesday morning, many French politicians warned the possibility of a president Marine Le Pen should no longer be dismissed as the stuff of political fiction.
“Reason no longer prevails since Brexit. Mrs Le Pen can win in France,” former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said.
Socialist party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadelis tweeted: “The left has been warned! If we continue with irresponsible squabbling, we’ll get Marine Le Pen.”
Le Pen was quick to congratulate Trump on Wednesday, saying his win was part of a much wider revolt by voters against political elites worldwide.
But unlike Trump, her appeal has been tested in elections before, most recently in regional elections last year in which her party failed to live up to opinion polls that suggested it would win at least one region.
“Polls now tend to overestimate the National Front vote,” Virginie Camels, one of Juppe’s campaign aides, told Reuters.
Le Pen’s supporters are also less ashamed of telling pollsters they’ll vote for her, in contrast with the stigma her father’s supporters felt was long associated with voting for the anti-euro, anti-immigrant party.
“Very few people hesitate to say they’ll vote for Marine Le Pen these days,” said Philippe Cossalter, law professor at Sarre university.
France’s two-round voting system is also designed to keep populists at bay, and even in the case of a Le Pen presidency, the National Front is highly unlikely to win a parliament majority, Cossalter said.
However, other independent candidates could shake up the political landscape.
Maverick far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and former economy minister Emmanuel Macron are both credited with around 13-14 percent in recent opinion polls, not enough to reach the second round should Juppe be the right’s candidate.
But a Sarkozy victory in the primary would leave the race open for the two candidates running on an anti-establishment platform.
“(Trump’s) election shows there is no prewritten script,” Macron said.
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Ingrid Melander in Bordeaux; Editing by Mark Trevelyan