The French Election: Polls, Media and Marine Le Pen

Polls have had a bad couple of years, which is news to no one. Trump and Brexit have only been the headline failures. Other duff predictions include that hung parliament we all expected in 2015 and the exit poll which claimed Bibi Netanyahu was on his way out. It’s hardly been a golden era for the pollsters.

Then there’s the media. They’ve taken fire for fake news, pundit hubris and generally meddling in the prediction business. More than this they’re accused of creating the worst of all horrors: a bubble. A candidate polls well, so up goes their coverage. Now they have great coverage, so polls are chosen which support that coverage. Come election day nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen.

The pollsters and the media have both played fast and loose with our expectations. So we used Signal‘s Artificial Intelligence driven media monitoring solution to monitor the French election and understand how this works. How does the media affect polling, if at all? How does polling affect the media?

Mighty Le Pen

The French election has been a wild ride. We’ve had Fillon’s scandal, Le Pen’s National Front resignation and a brief detour round the non-start of Jean-Luc Melenchon. We used Signal’s media monitoring to track media coverage alongside polling data from Opinion Polling to see who was influencing who. What is immediately clear is that Marine Le Pen has dominated media coverage from day one.

Back in late January Marine Le Pen announced her candidacy, along with her proposed policy of taking France out of the EU. The Banque de France howled with worry. For this first period of the race her proportion of coverage peaked. She was the dominant story and everyone predicted the cycle of Trump and Brexit about to repeat itself. Seven days later Macron and Fillon were languishing in the polls at 20%, while Le Pen flew high with a 7 point lead and significantly more media coverage. Could this surge in the polls be partly due to her increased coverage, giving Le Pen a stage to communicate her message? It would seem so.

Creeping Macron

But then along came Emmanuel Macron. By the 10th March his poll numbers were neck and neck with Le Pen’s. What changed?

In the period between late February and early March both Fillon and Macron’s news coverage rose relative to their previous trend. However, Le Pen’s proportion of the coverage dipped slightly relative to the gargantuan amount she was used to. It’s possible that this perceived decrease allowed Macron (and a hastily relaunched Fillon) to get back in the game. It seems that a relative change of coverage mattered most, alongside a resonant story of course. Momentum was generated by a change in coverage, not necessarily by a quantity of attention.

On the 20th March Le Pen’s coverage reached a peak in pre-first round coverage. In fear of the rising threat from Macron she’d been on the offensive, vowing to close the borders and offering dour warnings about unsafe schools. She garnered 622 mentions in the National media that day compared to a measly 471 for Macron. So we’d expect to see a shift in momentum and a rise in poll numbers, especially given a second peak on the 24th, where Le Pen had twice as many mentions than Macron.

But the polls didn’t move. In fact, just the reverse. In two weeks from her peak of 28% on the 18th March, she dropped 4 percentage points to 24% on the 30th March. To make matters, worse Macron was now level and in some polls ahead by a slim margin. Had her message and the corresponding volume of early coverage turned people off? What do you do when the polls dive and you’ve already got the media’s attention?

False Start Melenchon

On the 9th April came another upset. Melenchon started to gain momentum and his media coverage briefly overtook Fillon’s. His return was spread about the airwaves and the polls reflected this, closing the gap by 10% to Fillon, with both now standing effectively at parity. Le Pen’s Poll ratings were falling, with just 3% between her and Melenchon on the 17th April.  Alas, it was not meant to be, and the coverage he needed was just not there, with Le Pen and Macron soaring high. He never went further.

First Round


As soon as Macron won the first round his news coverage sky-rocketed, so did the markets across Europe, with the CAC 40 hitting a nine year high. Le Pen and Macron were now level pegging in media coverage.

Le Pen tried to hit the headlines again with her resignation from the party, but to no avail. Macron was now clearly ahead in the polls and his media coverage overtook Le Pen’s on the 27th April and has stayed there ever since. Journalists bored with the same old pieces about Le Pen are now rushing to write about the unexpected favourite. With a steady 20-point lead in the polls and generating over 20% more coverage it seems like a dash to the finish for Emmanual Macron as he is hurried along by a wave of media attention.

Using Signal’s media monitoring allows us to dive into the different moments of an evolving news story, such as the French Election. Using the real time news and the ability to have an unlimited number of feeds, we can see which news stories dominated the narrative and when they did so. A mouth-watering prospect for any business, especially given the recent snap election called in the UK. You can use Signal Monitor to see how a relative increase in coverage provides momentum, while the total amount of coverage can be a red herring.

Macron’s late blooming in the media after the first-round and the final television debate, gave him the media coverage he needed to maintain his lead. Indeed his lead in the polls extended at just the right time, and resulted in a fairly comprehensive win, setting him up well for the French presidency.

This time, the polls called it right…

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