How did French media get correct election result so quickly?

With polls banned on election day, how did the pollsters and media call the winners by 20.00?

At 20.00 last night, during France 2’s television coverage of the first round of the French presidential election, the first predictions of which two candidates had secured enough votes to go through to the second round were announced.

After a dramatic 10-second countdown, up flashed the images of Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen next to their winning percentages, with those trailing behind listed on a separate graphic.

The figures turned out to be quite close to the eventual vote count (see bottom) and even if the exact percentages were not right, the order in which all the candidates would finish was spot on.

But given that some polling stations had only closed an hour earlier, and that voting intention polls are not allowed to be published in French media on election day (a €75,000 fine is payable), how could such accurate predictions be made so quickly?

The answer is that they are based on representative samples of actual votes cast, and not how people said they were going to vote.

Each polling firm mobilises staff in polling stations across the country, carefully choosing those locations with around 1,000 voters, which are then aggregated to show how the French voted on a national scale.

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As some big city polling stations did not close until 20.00, pollsters used stations with similar historical voting patterns to use in the overall equation.

The clamour to get the prediction right live on national TV at 20.00 means polling companies invest heavily in manpower.

At Ifop, for example, for this election they doubled their staff count on the ground to cover 300 polling stations, with each member of staff well trained to closely monitor the vote count.

"This year we have only professional investigators whereas before we could count on the help of neutral people like city councillors," said Frédéric Dabi, Ifop’s Deputy Director.

At another polling firm, Elabe, once the first results were in, the investigators communicated them to 50 data collectors. The figures were then processed by political scientists and analysts to make the estimate.

Given that in June 2016 new legislation was introduced to keep polling stations open an hour later, pollsters knew beforehand that they would have just one hour to get their post-voting predictions right. "We have known for a year that we are going to experience a stressful evening," said Mr Dabi before the election.

Ifop’s results were announced on CNews – each TV channel, from TF1 to M6, uses a different polling company’s statistics for the crucial 20.00 ‘reveal’.

They will do it all again on May 7 for the second and decisive round of the 2017 presidential election.

Final voting numbers: Macron 23.86%, Le Pen 21.43%, Fillon, 19.94%, Mélenchon, 19.62%, Hamon 6.35%, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan 4.73%, Jean Lassalle 1.21%, Philippe Poutou 1.1%, François Asselineau 0.92%, Nathalie Arthaud 0.65%, Jacques Cheminade 0.18%.

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