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Web snubs French ban on exit polls

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2010-03-15

French journalists kept scrupulously quiet about the results of regional elections until a ban expired at 8 pm on Sunday evening. But, by then, their colleagues abroad had long broken the news on the Web.

No sooner had the clock struck eight on Sunday evening than the French media rushed to announce the exit polls for the first round of regional elections in France. But, by then, most people already knew that the ruling party of President Nicolas Sarkozy was heading for a beating.

Switzerland's Le Temps breaks the news... at 5:21 pm.

French law says it is illegal to publish any figures – other than voter turnout – before polls close. While French websites and broadcasters strictly abide by the rules, many foreign-based media clearly don't feel concerned by the ban.

As a result, anyone with an Internet connection, in or out of France, was able to access the first exit polls before 6 pm by taking a look at Swiss and Belgian news websites.

Geneva-based dailies Le Temps and La Tribune and Belgian newspaper Le Soir each posted estimated results of the regional polls just after 5:30 pm. More importantly, they posted the figures on the social networking site Twitter – thereby hugely expanding their reach.

Within seconds, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites were awash with estimates attributed to French polling institutes.

Not all were dead accurate, though. One estimate posted by Le Soir pointed to a slender lead for the ruling UMP party over the Socialists, when in fact it turned out to be the other way round.

A tweet posted by Belgian daily Le Soir at 6:02 pm with early exit polls -- albeit not the most accurate.

Foreign websites are not the only ones pouncing on leaked exit polls. A newsreader for RMC, a French radio, also posted the results on Twitter some two hours early, only to delete the tweet a few minutes later. But his gamble was picked up by the French version of the Slate news website and was soon known to all.

In some cases, people involved in the vote count broke the news for their constituency, tweeting preliminary figures before 8 pm.

All of this, of course, is perfectly illegal; nor does living abroad exempt one from the ban.

Twitter, which is based in the US, and Belgian and Swiss media could in theory be prosecuted if a party or a candidate filed a complaint, or if France's state prosecutors decide to go after them.

But neither the government, nor the parties, nor even France’s official media watchdog, have done anything to stem the leaks.

This is not the first time the issue has been raised. In 2007, news of Nicolas Sarkozy's impending victory in the race for the presidency was available on Internet two hours before polls closed.

Date created : 2010-03-15


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