PARIS (Reuters) - The first round of France's presidential election may be too close to call when polls close on Sunday because initial projections will not be available as early as in the past, pollsters and their watchdog said on Friday.
Most polls see centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen qualifying on Sunday for a May 7 runoff, but conservative Francois Fillon and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon are not far behind and within the margin of error. (For a graphic on French election click http://tmsnrt.rs/2lPduBG)
Adding to the suspense, the first polling stations to close will do so later than in previous votes. That means pollsters may not have had time to calculate first projections from partial results before 8:00 PM (1800 GMT), when media are allowed to report results.
"The tighter it is, the longer we are going to wait to put something reliable out," Ifop's head of political studies Francois Kraus told Reuters, adding that only in a best-case scenario would the pollsters have a first estimate ready before 8:00 PM for media.
In previous elections, the first polling stations closed at 6:00 PM, but that has been pushed back to 7:00 in part because there were too many leaks of partial results on social media and foreign news outlets before the closure of all stations at 2000.
That means pollsters will only have an hour to collect partial results from the first polling stations to close, which are mostly in smaller towns, before they can run algorithms to estimate projections, Kraus said.
Better projections based on results from larger towns may not be available until 8:45 PM, he added.
With the later closure, anything circulating on the Internet before 8:00 PM purporting to reflect partial results would be probably be based only on rumour, the head of France's polling watchdog said.
Even after that, the smoke might not clear immediately, Matthias Guyomar told Reuters.
"Everything is possible. There may be big divergences (between scores) and so at 8:00 there'll be estimates. Or it may be tight and caution will prompt (pollsters) to hold off or give ranges," Guyomar said.
(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; editing by John Irish)