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`False prophets' trawl for excuses

Paris - "Thank goodness for the high number of don't knows; they'll be our excuse if we get it wrong," said one of France's leading opinion pollsters as he presented final figures before Sunday's first round of presidential voting, writes Jonathan Fenby. Yesterday, he and his peers needed every excuse they could lay their hands on.

All seven main polls taken at the end of last week predicted that Jacques Chirac would come out on top with between 23 and 26 per cent (he got 20.7 per cent). Only a poll by the police intelligence service came anywhere near predicting the Socialist Lionel Jospin's first place score (it had him at 21.5 per cent; he got 23.3 per cent).

Politicians and newspapers rounded on the pollsters yesterday. Edouard Balladur's main strategist, the Budget Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, called the result "a formidable defeat for the poll institutes". Le Monde described them as "false prophets".

Part of the vehemence of the criticism may have been prompted by the way in which both politicians and the media were led by the polls throughout the campaign. The sheer volume of published surveys - more than 70 during the campaign - led everybody to believe that Mr Chirac would finish in first place on Sunday. Even Mr Jospin, who topped the voting, was reported to have believed that he could not come first on the basis of the poll findings.

Several things appear to have caused the problem. There was the high number - up to 30 per cent - of don't knows. There was the reluctance of some voters to admit that they were going to back the National Front. There was the high level of volatile protest votes, and there appears to have a been a late move away from Mr Chirac to Mr Balladur and the National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen.

France's biggest selling newspaper, Ouest-France, said in its editorial that democracy had at last triumphed over "pollecracy", but that the result was an election which bore witness to the strength of the protest vote.

The theme of a splintered country lacking confidence in its leaders was taken up in many of yesterday's editorials. Franz-Olivier Giesbert, editor of Le Figaro, said the French were looking for "simple, virile solutions" and that 40 per cent of voters did not find a natural home in any of the traditional parties.

There has never been an election at which social concerns had been so clearly reflected in politics, the analyst Alain Duhamel said on Europe- 1 Radio, while the Catholic newspaper, La Croix, saw a country "in disarray, seeking, on every side, a path to follow".