French Bloggers Fight Law That Gives Foreign Media Edge in Political Reporting

To be among the first to know the result of France's presidential election, you had to be ... surfing Web sites in Switzerland or Belgium, or watching British TV.

A French law that even officials admit is becoming outdated for the Internet age barred results from being published in France until polls closed Sunday night.

But by then, it was already an open secret abroad that Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy had qualified for the May 6 runoff. Some estimates popped up on the Web two hours before polls closed, when thousands of voters were still waiting in line.

Polling agencies released result projections early to journalists, but the law sets fines of up to $101,000 to those that publish them in France before polls close.

Last week, French bloggers complained that the gag order gives an unfair advantage to foreigners, and threatened to publish the results anyway. Sensing a possible rebellion, election officials wrote to them and server owners to remind them of the penalties.

"Bloggers told us, 'We know the results, but we're afraid of the penalties, so we're going to keep quiet,"' said Alain Fichelle, head administrator at the presidential election commission. "The law was very well respected in France."

Abroad, some sites that had early returns also posted messages saying they were bogged down by heavy visitor traffic.

On Monday, commission inspectors were poring over records to see whether any French sites linked to foreign sites that published early results — which could also lead to penalties.

Fichelle said it was not immediately clear whether there were any cases of wrongdoing.

Many of the early results were based on exit polls and turned out to be incorrect. In the final official tally, Sarkozy, of the ruling conservative party, won 31.1 percent and Socialist Royal had 25.8 percent. Centrist Francois Bayrou was third at 18.5 percent, and far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen a distant fourth, at 10.5 percent.

At 5:57 p.m., the Swiss Web site reported "early estimates" that Sarkozy had won 26.5 percent, Royal 26 percent — and Bayrou 16 percent. The site also noted that "only foreign media are authorized to circulate the first projections."

Fichelle said some sites had wrongly put Le Pen in third. He did not elaborate.

Shortly before 7 p.m., with an hour of French voting left, Belgian site reported that actual vote counts by the Ipsos polling agency showed Sarkozy at 30 percent, Royal at 25 percent, Bayrou at 17 and Le Pen at 10 — not all that far from the final result.

"They were lucky because they weren't wrong," said Fichelle. "Those figures are perfect by being close to reality, but that's more an exception than the rule."

Britain's Sky TV flashed the Sarkozy-Royal matchup around 7 p.m., quoting Belgian media.

Fichelle acknowledged the digital revolution had changed the reporting landscape since the 8 p.m. rule was enacted in 1977, but said it would be up to the commission to decide whether the policy should be changed.