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Ignore the polls – France’s election is far from over

Serge Galam became a sensation among French political junkies after successfully predicting the Leave side's victory in Britain's Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's winning White House bid. Now, this theoretical physicist is in the spotlight once more with a mathematical model showing how Marine Le Pen could embarrass the pollsters by becoming France's next president.

Predicting exactly who will turn out to vote in France's presidential election has become harder than ever. The French typically vote in high numbers. But with less than two weeks to go before the election's first round on April 23, a record third of French voters say they may not vote at all. And among those who say they will cast a ballot, a third say they still don't know for whom they will do it.

This means that polls showing Ms. Le Pen losing badly in a May 7 runoff election against either Emmanuel Macron or François Fillon could be misleading. The so-called Republican Front of anti-Le Pen voters from across the political spectrum that has formed in past presidential and legislative elections to block a victory by the far-right National Front simply might not materialize this time.

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Disdain for the political class in general, and certain candidates in particular, is at an all-time high in France. Will supporters of the radical-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, currently closing in on third place in the polls, vote for Mr. Macron in the second round simply to block the xenophobic Ms. Le Pen, even if they prefer her economic program over that of the elitist former investment banker? There is a strong likelihood that many of them, especially the youngest ones, will just stay home.

Indeed, this is the first French presidential election that is not being fought principally on a left-right axis but on one that pits nationalists against globalists. Except for her anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric, Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Mélenchon sound a lot alike on most days. Both want to renegotiate France's membership in the European Union, failing which would mean they hold a referendum to pull out of the EU altogether. Both favour France's exit from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Both promise more public spending and shorter work weeks. Both are populist, anti-establishment candidates who tap into the frustrations of working-class voters.

Mr. Mélenchon's insurgent campaign, under the France Insoumise (France Insubmissive) banner, has suffocated that of the formal Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon. Moderate Socialists, including ex-prime minister Manuel Valls, have openly endorsed Mr. Macron, the pro-Europe former economy minister who pushed through pro-business reforms. This schism in the Socialist Party – Mr. Hamon called Mr. Valls's move "a knife in the back" – could make it awfully hard for Mr. Hamon's supporters to hold their noses and vote for Mr. Macron on May 7.

This is where Prof. Galam's model comes in. Since Ms. Le Pen's voters are far more devoted to her than Mr. Macron's are to him, more current Macron voters are likely to abstain on May 7. Indeed, polls show that around 85 per cent of Ms. Le Pen's voters are certain to turn out to vote for her, while a third of Mr. Macron's say they could still vote for someone else.

With most recent polls showing Ms. Le Pen garnering 40-per-cent support to Mr. Macron's 60 per cent in a runoff election, he still looks fairly safe. But Prof. Galam's model posits that Ms. Le Pen needs only to rise a couple of percentage points in the polls to overtake Mr. Macron, provided that 90 per cent of her supporters turn out on May 7 compared to 65 per cent of his. A relatively low-turnout election would allow Ms. Le Pen to scrape through to win the presidency.

A lot can change by April 23. Mr. Fillon, the Republican candidate who has led a disastrous campaign plagued by financial scandals and a Nixon-like persecution complex, appears to have stopped bleeding support. Few are yet willing to count him out, given Mr. Macron's own tendency to say the darnedest things, such as recently referring to French Guiana as an island.

Ms. Le Pen has had her missteps, too. Her March 24 visit with Russian President and Bashar al-Assad enabler Vladimir Putin looks in retrospect like a massive miscalculation with a renewed focus in the French media on Syria's civil war and the emerging global response to it.

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Le sprint final in France's election could hold many surprises.

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