France towards a Deja-vu?

Re-examining the 2002 Presidential Elections

Front National 2010-05-01
France towards a Deja-vu? : Re-examining the 2002 Presidential Elections - Armand Zorn


The 2002 French presidential elections are often referred to as “la catastrophe.” On the 21st of April, a date which has entered the pantheon of political reference points, the incumbent Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, was defeated in the first round of the presidential elections[1]. This resulted in the unexpected passage of Front National (FN) leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, into the decisive second round against the incumbent, center-right President Jacques Chirac.[2]

More than a decade after the 2002 elections, this issue is still highly relevant. The rise of nationalist, populist, and extremist parties in Europe confronts our societies with severe challenges. Under the Leadership of Marine Le Pen, the FN has been able to establish itself in the French political landscape. By winning the European elections in May 2014 with 24.86 percent of the votes and reaching a record score of 5,142,177 votes in the recent departmental elections, France’s far-right party has become a major actor in political life. The recent father-daughter conflict demonstrates the FN’s strategy of normalisation. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s exclusion from the Party illustrates his daughter’s efforts to seduce a moderate electorate and enhance her prospects for the 2017 presidential elections.  With regards to these elections, re-examining the 2002 French presidential elections is crucial for drawing the right lessons for the future.

This paper seeks to identify the main causes of “la catastrophe.” Why and how could Jean-Marie Le Pen succeed in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections? I argue that French society, as a system, failed to achieve its function of preventing instability. One principal reason for introducing a new constitution and creating the Fifth Republic in 1958 was to ensure France’s political stability. However, I argue that Le Pen’s success represented a failure in the following way: with xenophobic and racist beliefs, Le Pen is certainly not a candidate who could have guaranteed the stability of the political system and the country. Indeed, he often has questioned several democratic institutions and rights and proposed to modify them.[3] Thus, any step that brought him closer to becoming President (like his passage into the second round) created a risk and should be interpreted as a failure. Moreover, his xenophobic, anti-Islam, and racist positions contradict the values of the French Republic and democracy in general.       

This failure is primarily due to the collapse of interconnections.  First, Lionel Jospin made strategic errors in policy positioning and communications, ignoring the rules of the game for winning the elections. Second, the candidates, as elements of the system armed with task of preventing instability, failed to perceive themselves as such. The number of candidates as well as the number of electoral policy statements towards the center favored the success of Le Pen. Third, the collective failure of opinion pollsters to accurately predict the election’s results provided incorrect information to the public and influenced voters’ behavior. Lastly, the disconnection between the reality and the television coverage before the first round of the elections contributed to the failure of the system.    

After providing background information on the 2002 presidential elections, this paper focuses on the campaign of Lionel Jospin. The next section examines the policy competition in the first round of the elections and the role of opinion pollsters. The last section takes a closer look at the media coverage during the elections before discussing the implications of the findings.


The period from 1997 to 2002 was characterized by an impasse in the decision-making system. The constitutional reform in 2000 was introduced to synchronize the French Presidential and legislative elections, while reducing the presidential term to five years. This amendment was designed to reduce the frequency by which the presidency and parliament were controlled by different parties, a form of divided government known in France as “cohabitation”.[4] Accordingly, elections took place under the new constitution in 2002, with the presidential elections taking place before the legislative elections.

While the lesser-known candidates began to campaign early, Chirac and Jospin did not declare their candidacy until mid-February 2002. With a total of 16 candidates, the 500 signatures requirement proved not to be a barrier for small candidates.[5]  In addition to the mainstream candidates of the moderate-right and Parti Socialiste (PS), voters were offered a diversity of choices from all the party families. Mamère represented the Greens, Hue the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), and Taubira the Radicals. Francois Bayrou championed for what remains of the Christian-democrat tradition, while Madelin led the Liberals. The far-right was divided with Le Pen and Bruno Mégret as candidates. In addition, there were three Trotskyites. Other candidates were Boutin, Saint-Josse, Lepage, and the former left-socialist Chevènement.[6]

The results of the first round were a shock not only for the PS, but for the whole nation. The level of abstention reached a record high. However, even more striking was the success of the Front National leader, Le Pen. Table 1 displays the results of the first round of the presidential elections. In the second ballot in May 5, 2002, Chirac won with 82.15% of the votes.

Table 1: Results of  the First Round of the Presidential Election 2002 (Source: Buffotot &  Hanley, 2003)


Lionel Jospin’s Strategic Errors

The French two-round system of presidential elections forces candidates to choose strategies designed to maximize their votes in two different, potentially conflicting contexts: a first round contest between many candidates, and a second round typically between a left and a right-oriented candidate.[7] As highlighted by Kuhn, this strategic dilemma has traditionally been resolved in France by the iron law of the two-ballot system.[8] This consists on securing the core vote in your camp in the first round before widening the base of support in the second round.[9]

Analyzing the policy positions of the main presentational candidates and comparing them with the platform of the respective political party in the legislative elections provides some meaningful insights into the importance of respecting the iron law. Laver et al.  contends that Jospin’s failure in the first round was due largely to strategic errors in policy positioning. Indeed, he moved significantly away from the campaign platform of the PS.[10] On the socio-economic dimension (i.e., taxes versus spending, social policy, immigration) for instance, Jospin moved away from the center-left, where his party stood, towards the center.[11] However, on the “internationalism” policy dimensions (i.e., the EU and globalization), the direction of his movement was from the centrist position of his party towards a more internationalist, pro-EU, and pro-globalization position. In both cases, his movement can be seen as a shift away from the socialist and social-democratic core vote. It is likely that Jospin designed his platform in anticipation of a second round contest with Chirac, by moving away from the position of his party and towards the position of Chirac.[12]

Jospin’s strategic errors become increasingly clear when considering Chirac’s and Le Pen’s policy stances. On issues like social policy, immigration, globalization and the environment, there is no significant difference between Chirac’s presidential policy positions and those of his party, the Rassemblement Pour la République (RPR). On economic policy, Chirac’s presidential elections statement was less centrist but rather to the right of the RPR manifesto. Moreover, he also adopted a less pro-EU and a more pro-decentralization position than his party. All in all, there were only small differences between Chirac policy positions and the one of his party. In contrast to Jospin, those differences moved him away, than rather towards the center. Le Pen’s policy position happened to be to the right of the Front National party manifesto.[13]

The presented empirical evidence suggest that Lionel Jospin moved sharply towards the center on the socio-economic policy dimension, away from his left party base and towards his anticipated second round rival Jacques Chirac. By doing so, Jospin ignored the iron law of the two ballot system of the French presidential elections. He failed to unite his core and secure the votes within his camp in the first round of the elections. His electoral statement was rather oriented towards widening the base of support. In contrast, Chirac and Le Pen followed the iron law of consolidating their popular base in the first round.[14]

These strategic errors are evidenced by Jospin’s questionable communication strategy. He introduced his presidential campaign program with the words: “Mon programme n'est pas socialiste...”[15] By doing so, he clearly communicated his focus on the second round against the incumbent President Chirac, again ignoring the iron law of the two ballot system. Accordingly, his communication strategy targeted the middle class and the median voter from the very beginning of the election campaign. On the eve of the first round of the elections, Jospin was asked who he would vote for if he did not make it to the second round. His reaction was symptomatic of his campaign strategy. After laughing, he responded: “j’ai une imagination normale mais tempéré par la raison…ça me paraît assez peu vraisemblable donc on peut passer à la question suivante.“[16][17] His response illustrates his firm conviction that he would succeed in the second round. He should have reacted differently and used the opportunity to appeal to his political family and mobilize his voters. Sympathizers and voters assumed that he would easily pass the first round and perceived it as a simple formality.[18] While some of them voted for other candidates, many abstained and waited for the second round. This partly explains the unprecedented abstention rate of over 28 percent.

(Policy) Competition in the First Round

The French presidential elections allow any number of candidates to compete in the first round. A candidate gets directly elected if he receives more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round, otherwise the two candidates with the most votes compete against each other in the second round. As aforementioned there were 16 candidates in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, leading to a highly fragmented outcome in which no candidate received more than 20 per cent of the vote.[19]

The plurality of candidacies was a vital factor of Jospin’s failure and the success of Le Pen.[20] Left-wing voters were able to choose, instead of a Social Democrat, between a Green, a Communist, a Jacobin populist and three varieties of Trotskyites candidates. However, the main problem arises from the candidacy of Jean-Pierre Chevènement and his mini-party, embarking on an ideological mission that increasingly resembled an ego trip[21]. Most of Chevènement’s voters were socialist sympathizers, wanting to send a message about the need for more affirmative state action to help those who have lost out in the process of modernization and Europeanization.[22] With 1.5 million votes, the performance of this party is yet another reason for that Lionel Jospin was unsuccessful.[23] Ultimately, many left-wing candidates competed against each other, lowering their respective chances pass the first round.

Analyzing the presidential elections statements of the twelve main candidates and comparing their positions on socio-economic and internationalism policy dimensions illustrate that not only the number of candidates in the first round but also their policy platform led to the failure of the system. As the Figure 1 shows, the central segment of the socioeconomic policy dimension was very crowded with eight candidates competing in the first round. Consequently, there was no significant difference in the socio-economic electoral platform of Jospin, Mamère, Taubira or Bayrou.  Assuming that this dimension was the most important to voters, the eight candidates lost votes because of the high level of competition in the center. The success of Jean Marie Le pen is partly due to the fact that he had a policy position that clearly distinguished him from other candidates.[24]

Figure 1: Policy Positioning in the French Presidential Elections (Source: Laver et al., 2006)


Le Pen's Strategy

The FN leader benefited from the record level of political disenchantment. About 83% of the voters before the first round agreed that “politicians do not care what people like us think,” while 58% thought that they were “somewhat corrupt.” Moreover, Le Pen profited from the political situation. France was coming out of a five-year cohabitation with socialist-led government and a center-right president. This blurred the left-right division in the eyes of the French people. A large majority saw no difference between the policies advocated by the socialist Lionel Jospin and the Gaullist Jacques Chirac in the field of tax reductions, retirement pensions, social dialogue, and, above all, insecurity.[25] This enabled Le Pen to distance himself from the political elite and to present himself as a real alternative.

However, Jean-Marie Le Pen made only a marginal advance on his 1995 performance, increasing his number of votes by less than 400,000 votes, representing 0.3 percent of registered electorate.[26] Le Pen gains over as a proportion of the electoral register was almost non-existent, rising from 11.5 per cent in 1988 to 11.7 per cent in 2002.[27] This underlines the argument that Le Pen’s passage into the second round was not due his own successful strategy but rather the result of the failure of other elements of the system.

The Failure of Opinion Polls

The presidential elections were perceived as a contest between the incumbent President Jacques Chirac and the outgoing Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. Many of the published opinion polls in the run-up to the elections focused mainly on what the results of this anticipated second-round contest would be. However, the inaccurate estimations of voting intentions had striking consequences and sent wrong signals to the voters. About nine percent of the voters were convinced that the two major candidates, Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac, would make it to the second round.[28] Consequently they decided to vote for other candidates in order to “send a message” to their preferred candidate. As Durand (2008) states, had the voters been informed that the chances of their preferred candidate making the second round were uncertain, they would likely not have voted differently.[29] However, this statement assumes that the opinion polls would have been able to provide accurate estimations. This raises the question of what went wrong in 2002. Why were the pollsters not able to predict “la catastrophe?”

To answer this question, we need to consider at the French pollsters techniques. Durand et al. (2004) find that French pollsters use Probability Sampling with Quotas (PSQ).[30] In PSQ, the sample is stratified according to region and community size. The selection within households is carried out using quotas based on age groups, gender, and the occupational category of the head of the household.  Moreover, pollsters also ask respondents for how they voted in previous elections. The selection and the number of these households can vary between pollsters. A series of estimates of voter intentions is then produced, based on declared vote at different previous elections, together with likelihood of voting and certainty of choice.[31]

In 2002, published estimates were the results of a selection among these estimates. However, estimates for different candidates could come from different series. In addition, some pollsters declared that they “adjusted” their estimates based on other information including other polls they had conducted, polls published by other pollsters and the previous evolution of voting intentions.[32] As argued by Duran et al. (2004), this adjustment according to the pollster’s professional experience tends to create a smoothed trend (i.e. to adjust for jumps from one poll to the other) and to cause all pollsters to align with each other and publish similar estimates. In a sense, it mixes the production of estimates with their interpretation and the evaluation of their bias.[33]

Duran (2008) find an abnormal unanimity among pollsters in 2002. Five out of six estimates were similar for Jospin at 18 percent. In the case of Chirac, three estimates were at 20 percent and two at 19.5 percent. Three polls estimated Le Pen at the same 14 percent, and finally, four polls estimated Bayrou at six percent.[34] Table 2 presents the mean estimation of the surveys published during the last week of the electoral campaign and the results of the first round of the presidential elections. With 4.2 percentage points, the level of underestimation of Le Pen is particularly striking. On the other hand, the left candidates are slightly overestimated. The highest overestimation occurs for Hue, the Communist party candidate (2 points on a vote of 3.4%).

Table 2: Comparison between polls published during last week of campaign and election results (Source: Durand et al., 2004)

The picture becomes clearer when focusing on estimations based on the voter intention for Jospin and Le Pen during the electoral campaign. Figure 2 shows that the evolution of vote intention for Jospin is a linear downward trend from 21.2 percent at the beginning of the official campaign to 17.1 percent on election day, a total drop of 4.1 percentage points.[35] In contrast, the vote intention for Le Pen increased from 10.2 percent to 13.6 percent. This undermines the claim that the opinion polls underestimated the prediction of the vote for Le Pen. As Durand et al. (2004) emphasize, this was a collective failure of the pollsters. Although some were worse than others, they all underestimated Le Pen’s vote.[36]

Figure 2:  Evolution of vote intention for Jospin and Le Pen (Source: Durand et al., 2004)


Media Coverage

Another cause for the failure of the system lies in the television coverage during the election campaign. The presidential campaign was to a large extent fought out on television, with France 2 and TF1 serving as the primary sources of information for most voters.[37] Chirac’s declaration of his candidacy on the TF1 evening news attracted an audience of over eight million viewers. Similarly, an audience of over nine million watched an interview of Le Pen on the same news program.[38]

In the run-up to the first round of the elections, the central debate on French television was “l’insécurité.”[39]  The term included stories related to crime and delinquency, like drug trafficking, robbery, or petty theft. However, as Kuhn (2005) emphasizes, the concept of “l’insécurité” was vague, fluid and apparently infinitely expandable.[40] It not only implied an anti-social (though not necessarily criminal) behavior, but also it was related to popular fear of terrorism in the aftermath of the events of September 11th in the United States. Moreover, it was connected to the economic trends due to globalization as well as to popular fears about the changing nature of French society.[41]

The media coverage on “l’insécurité” increased dramatically; the number of stories increased by 126 percent between February and March 2002 across all French media including print, radio and television. Television alone accounted for 60 percent of all media coverage on this theme.[42] The coverage intensified with the occurrence of specific incidents of violent crime in the beginning of 2002.[43] The assault on an elderly man in Orléans by two youths received massive media attention before the first round of the elections. The pictures of the injured face of the man, Paul Voise, were first broadcasted on the news channel LCI on April 19th, before the story had been reported by TF1 in its main news program on the same evening. France 2 also jumped on the media bandwagon the following day.[44]

Several experts accused the television news of decontextualizing, sensationalizing and disproportionately according attention to the issue. French socialist Deputy Dray argued that television news gave viewers the impression that the entire country was submerged in a veritable wave of violence.[45] Indeed, the media coverage did not reflect the actual situation in France. As Petit and Blanchas noted, there was in fact a noticeable increase in the crime figures.[46] However, the media cannot be held primarily responsible for setting the campaign agenda around this theme. The main presidential candidates contributed to the construction of the campaign agenda. Chirac made it clear that “l’insécurité” was the major issue he would use to attack Prime Minister Jospin.[47] Le Pen also put a strong emphasize on “l’insécurité”, proposing a hardline stance. Accordingly, the predominance of this topic in the media reinforced the campaign themes of some candidates (notably Chirac and Le Pen) at the expense of others (namely Jospin).[48] Moreover, it served as a mobilizing factor for right-wing voters.


The success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the French 2002 presidential elections is the result of the wrong strategic choices of the PS candidate Lionel Jospin, as well as the record amount of 16 candidates running for office. This was intensified by the fact that the majority of the candidates campaigned on a centrist platform. Simultaneously, pollsters provided incorrect information to the public, resulting in a steady flow of misinformation between citizens and the political class. Although it did not reflect the current situation in France, the television coverage on “l’insécurité” certainly influenced the voters.

These findings have implications for the French political system. First, they underline the importance of the iron law of the two ballot systems. Future presidential candidates of moderate parties should understand the importance of unifying their camp and securing core votes in the first round of the presidential elections, especially as populist and extremist parties continue to rise. Moreover, it is of great importance to choose appropriate policy positions and communication strategies. Second, cooperation and coordination matter more than ever. Political parties, which are ideologically similar, should unify behind one candidate in order to maximize their chances to succeed. Third, estimates of opinion pollsters should be interpreted with caution. This case study has highlighted how influential opinion pollsters can be, even when their predictions are erroneous. Finally, with regard to the rise of extremist parties in Europe, this analysis emphasizes the critical role that media plays as a primary source of information. Media should report more independently and fairly in order to avoid any disconnection between their coverage and reality.  

Notes & References

  1. Kuhn, R. (2005), ‘Be Very Afraid’Television and l’Insecurite in the 2002 French Presidential Election, European Journal of Communication 20/2, p. 181.
  2. Laver, M., Kenneth B., & Sauger, N. (2006), ‘Policy Competition in the 2002 French Legislative and Presidential Elections’,  European Journal of Political Research 45(4, June), p. 668.
  3. For instance, he suggested to remove the voting rights of French citizens with migration background. 
  4. Ibid, p.667.
  5. Buffotot, P. & Hanley, D. (2003), ‘The normalisation of French politics? The elections of 2002’, Modern & Contemporary France Vol. 11, No. 2, 2003, p. 131.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Laver et al., 2006.
  8. see Ibid., 671.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 685.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 686.
  15. “My platform is not socialist…”
  16. “I have a normal imagination but tempered by rationality…that seems rather unlikely to me so we could move on to the next question.”
  17. Source:
  18. Shields, J. (2010), ‘Support for Le Pen in France: Two Elections in Trompe l’oeil’, Politics: 2010 30(1), p. 62.
  19. Laver et al., 2006, 669.
  20. Buffotot & Hanley 2003, 182.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 183.
  23. For comparison, Jospin lost to Le Pen by less than 200,000 votes.
  24. Figure 1 displays the estimated position of presidential candidates on socio-economic and internationalism policy. X-Dimension: Mean of economic and immigration policy scores, Y-Dimension: (Inverted) Mean of globalization and EU scores. Basis: 9 party reference texts and all 12 candidates as virgin texts. Transformed scores plotted.
  25. Mayer, N. (2003), ‘Le Pen's comeback: the 2002 French presidential election’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27, p. 459.
  26. Shields, 2010, 63.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Durand, Claire (2008), ‘The Polls of the 2007 French Presidential Campaign: Were Lessons Learned from the 2002 Catastrophe?’, International Journal of Public Opinion Research 20(3), p. 276.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Durand, C., A. Blais and M. Larochelle (2004), ‘The Polls in the 2002 French Presidential Election: An Autopsy’, Public Opinion Quarterly 68(4), pp. 602–622.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Durand, 2008, 292.
  35. Durand et al., 2004.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Kuhn, R. (2005), ‘Be Very Afraid’Television and l’Insecurite in the 2002 French Presidential Election, European Journal of Communication 20/2, pp. 181-198.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Petit, G. & C. Blanchas (2003), ‘Les M´edias et la campagne presidentielle’, pp. 193–204 in O. Duhamel and P. M´echet (eds) L’ ´ Etat de l’opinion 2003. Paris: Seuil; Kuhn, 2005
  40. Kuhn, 2005.
  41. Ibid., 183-184.
  42. Ibid., 184.
  43. These included the brutal killing of a father in Evreux, who had apparently gone to the defence of his son against a violent attack by a gang; the slaying of eight town councillors in Nanterre by a mentally deranged man; and the killing of a senior police officer in Vannes (Kuhn, 2005, 184).
  44. Ibid., 185.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Petit and Blanchas, 2003, 198
  47. Kuhn, 2005, 187.
  48. Ibid.
Armand Zorn, born in Cameroon and raised in Germany, obtained his BA in Political Science & History from Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in 2012. He holds a MA in Politics and Public Administration from the University of Konstanz, a Diplôme du Programme International from Science Po Paris and Diploma in International Economics from Johns Hopkins SAIS. Currently enrolled in a part-time LL.M. program on Business & Economic Law, his research interests include political economy as well as development finance.