Foreign media given odds in reporting on French presidential race

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 arcane 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 triumphed and 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 promises fines of up to EUR75,000 (US$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 they could face.

"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 posted estimates Sunday before the French deadline put up messages saying that their sites were temporarily bogged down under heavy visitor traffic.

On Monday, commission inspectors were poring over their records to see whether French sites offered links to foreign sites that published early results - which could also lead to penalties.

"If you're on a French site that doesn't give you the result, but through a link redirects you (to one that does), that's illegal," Fichelle said, adding that 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, making the runoff as the top two vote-getters. 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 that "early estimates" were that Sarkozy had won 26.5 percent, Royal 26 percent - and Bayrou 16 percent. That 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 specify.

Shortly before 7 p.m., with an hour of French voting left, Belgian site reported that actual vote counts by Ipsos 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 match-up 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.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova