A new wave of opinion polls on the French presidential elections is awaited with great impatience this week after the last series produced wide differences in the first-round scores for the front-runners, raising renewed questions about the reliability and alleged bias of some polling organisations.
The disparities have produced questioning articles in the mainstream press and allegations, and denials, of bias in French blogs and chat rooms. One poll showed that the Socialist front-runner, François Hollande, maintained a seven- point first-round lead after President Nicolas Sarkozy entered the race two weeks ago. Two other polls, taken at about the same time, suggested that Mr Sarkozy had closed the gap on his main rival and was running neck-and-neck with him in voting intentions for 22 April.
The bloggers point out that, Opinionway, one of the organisations that published encouraging results for the President, has often worked for the Elysée Palace. It has been accused of producing pro-Elysée polls in the past by the investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchainé. Another polling company, CSA, which showed only a one-point Hollande lead, belongs to a wealthy businessman, Vincent Bolloré, said by bloggers to have close links with the President. Other commentators point out, however, that Mr Bolloré also has links with the Hollande camp.
A third poll, by Ipsos, showing a seven- point Hollande first-round lead – 32 per cent to 25 per cent – was commissioned in part by Le Monde newspaper.
"Something is not right," said the veteran pollster, Roland Cayrol, now a polling expert and researcher at the Centre de Recherches Politiques. The official French polling watchdog, La Commission des Sondages, says it sees no reason for concern at this stage. The disparities are not far from the usual polling "margin of error", the commission said, and could reflect differences in the polling methods and the precise wording of the question asked.
The Hollande camp says it is watching the polling "with interest" but sees no reason to complain. In 2007, the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, protested publicly about what she saw as a pro-Sarkozy bias in polling. But the first round scores in the election were reasonably close to most forecasts.
What makes the first round disparities even more puzzling is that the pollsters' findings for the two-candidate second round are almost identical. All the polling organisations suggest that, as things stand, the Socialist challenger, Mr Hollande, would win by a landslide in the two candidate run-off on 6 May.
But good forecasts for the first round could attract support to Mr Sarkozy from the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, and the centrist candidate, François Bayrou. A better than expected Sarkozy performance in the first round could then transform the electoral landscape.
Polling officials say different approaches to the "Le Pen vote" may help to explain the disparities in the findings.
Meanwhile, the ex-wife of the President, Cecilia Attias, expressed confidence in his prospects in a rare media appearance yesterday. "I am watching, I'm observing," Ms Attias said on French television. When asked whether Mr Sarkozy, who began wooing the former supermodel Carla Bruni weeks after his divorce from Ms Attias in 2007, could secure re-election, she said: "Of course."