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French press review 9 March 2011

The papers this morning are rather mathematical. On the left, they use these skills to prove there's an international plot to protect the rich, while others put statistical analysis to another use: mocking the president.


Communist l'Humanité says Europe is planning to cut our wages, privatise our companies and oblige national governments to toe the line established by Brussels. This is on the basis of a document prepared by EU top dogs, José Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy. The two lads are trying to save the ship, already holed below the waterline, and leaking badly because of those spendthrift Irish and Greek gougers. The communist daily says it's just a plot to protect the rich.

The rich need all the protection they can get, according to the front page of business daily, Les Echos. The average price of raw materials has shot up by 50 per cent over the past year, which is bad news for industry, which has a delicate task in attempting to pass on that increase to consumers who already feel themselves to be an endangered species.

Le Monde is worried about opinion polls.

The main story on page one asks the question, "Whose opinion do we get in an opinion poll?" The problem is that two recent surveys by the respected and respectable Harris Institute show far-right National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, beating any Socialist Party candidate in the first round of the 2012 presidential election here in France. With 23 per cent support, Marine would actually top the first round ratings.

The crucial question is, is Marine Le Pen really that popular, or are the people who produce opinion polls simply wrong?

Le Monde's answer to that question, spread over two inside pages, is not simple.

The pollsters do make an effort to compensate for the fact that they question a very small number of voters by adding in things they know from other sources. For example, says one expert interviewed by Le Monde, if five per cent of people in a poll say they voted for a particular candidate in the last election, but that candidate really got 10 per cent of the vote, it's reasonable to multiply the result of that part of the poll by two. And if you know that retired people make up 20 per cent of the voting population but you find only five retirees in you sample of 500 voters, it is not just reasonable but absolutely essential to give more weight to the opinions of the five you did find, so you start multiplying again, this time by a factor of 19. And that's where it all gets a bit ragged around the edges, because using one real opinion to create 19 fictive ones makes mathematical sense, but could lead to political nonsense.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is greatly interested and hugely influenced by opinion polls. Le Monde says he holds a meeting every Sunday with a team of analysts, and that they go over every twitch of public opinion as reflected in the previous week's statistics. Brice Hortefeux was recently sacked from his job as Interior Minister, according to Le Monde, because the opinion polls suggested he was not sufficiently clear in his incarnation of government security policy.

The 2007 surge in the poll popularity of the National Front was what moved the French president to create the controversial Ministry for Immigration and National Identity. A few days later, a survey published in right-wing Le Figaro, validated to president's decision, after the fact. They were all wrong, of course, and a series of subsequent opinion polls, all negative, resulted in the sacking, not just of the Minister, but of the entire ministry. That's statistics for you, folks.


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