France’s Stringent Election Laws: Lessons for the America’s Free-for-All Campaigns

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Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images

France's incumbent President and UMP ruling party's candidate Nicolas Sarkozy speaks during a campaign meeting on April 18, 2012 in the French northern city of Arras.

If, in the course of lampooning America’s few-holds-barred campaign finance system, Stephen Colbert ever found the need for a straight man to highlight U.S. folly, France would be perfect. French campaigns are parsimonious, bondage-prone, yet noble-minded Gallants compared to the bottomless-pocketed, influence-peddling, ultimate fighting Goofuses in the U.S.

Just how different are those political worlds? As the U.S. heads toward a November campaign expected to cost over a billion dollars, France’s two 2007 presidential finalists spent a collective $54 million (out of a maximum legal limit of $49 million each). Individual contributions in France have a generous limit of $5,980, compared to the U.S. individual maximums of $2,500. But there are no Gallic versions of the unlimited gifts that can go to third-party groups, nor the super PACs which can spend the enormous amounts for candidates that so distend the America system. In France, companies, unions, and special interests are prohibited from funding favored French politicians. French campaigns are similarly regulated across all other areas. So much so that the ground rules themselves became the focus of debate heading into first round of voting on April 22. Candidates and pundits sparred over rules dictating what time of evening partial ballot tallies should be revealed—a rolling count habitually featured on U.S. news media the moment results and projections are available.

For better and worse, France puts égalité in politics before the liberté of candidates to invest big bucks in mass marketing displays of what little fraternité they feel for one another. Indeed, flesh-flaying attack ads frequent in U.S. elections are illegal under French rules. Not only is buying French airspace for political commercials forbidden; so is disparaging rivals in any electoral advertising that is allowed. Turning a campaign around with an effective but expensive Willie Horton, Swift Boat, or Morning In America adjust isn’t an option in France.

So what can Elysée hopefuls do? Officially speaking, not a whole lot. Under French law, formally recognized campaigning only lasts two weeks ahead of voting—a period that started this year on April 9. During that time, the current field of 10 contenders was provided equal and identical space to affix posters outdoors (the size and contents of which are also regulated). Meantime, each candidate was accorded 43 minutes of free TV airtime—spread over 18 spots—to present their respective programs. Laws require media to broadcast those dry pitches in slots providing equal exposure to all contestants, whether they’re a favored incumbent, or marginal candidate getting 0% of the vote in polls.

As always, though, reality doesn’t always hew to official plan. Campaigning for the current French election actually began in July, when Socialist rivals began contesting their party’s primary, which gave them publicity and media time into October. The general contest took off in December and January, when most other candidates took to the stump—a crowd joined by incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in February. Since then, contenders have not only been holding rallies featured in coverage by national news media. They’ve also given interviews and participated in debates on TV and radio—some involving spectacular confrontations, allegations and insults. So much for fraternité. You’d almost think French regulators had finally been beaten.

Think again. The so-called temps de parole law requiring equal time and exposure to candidates during the official campaign also applies to any presidential wannabe for months ahead of voting—even those who never make the grade. Because to qualify for the ballot, Elysée hopefuls must collect sponsorship signatures from 500 French mayors by the mid-March deadline—a requirement that routinely thins the early field out. This explains why French media was for months forced to give equal time to former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin—a high profile aspirant who failed to get his 500 signatures—as it did to Socialist front-runner François Hollande. The same logic applied to the official campaign is why Jacques Cheminade—an obscure candidate allied to controversial American figure Lyndon LaRouche, and who somehow got the requisite mayoral support—enjoys identical media access as incumbent Sarkozy.

Not everyone is happy about such pro forma field leveling. Trailing Hollande by a widening margin in polls, Sarkozy and his backers complain the temps de parole rule is essentially gagging serious contenders for the May 6 face-off in a fair play gesture to no-hopers. How things change. Much of Sarkozy’s presidential strategy—and initial popularity—was based on monopolizing public attention through non-stop media exposure. Now denied that advantage, Sarkozy is left attacking campaign rules concerning the press in more ways than one.

On Thursday, Sarkozy challenged another election law that prohibits partial voting tallies to be broadcast before polls close at 8 p.m. Though that was traditionally the hour France turned to big national media for results, several foreign outlets and internet sites have warned they’ll reveal the count when they get it earlier in the afternoon. They’re expected to be joined by well-informed adepts of social networks. French prosecutors warned Friday anyone breaking the 8 p.m. embargo will be prosecuted–whether foreign publications or tweeting French citizens.

Honing to his modernizing and iconoclastic profile, Sarkozy says early result reports are logical in a constantly wired world where real time is the only time. His rivals, including Hollande, defend the ban as necessary to prevent partial results from leading late voters to conclude they needn’t bother casting ballots. Given Sarkozy’s underdog status in polls, critics suspect he is hoping that  early reports of a Hollande lead might lull Socialist supporters to stay home– thereby aiding the president’s own score.

French commentators generally echo Hollande’s position. Yet since most of those hail from traditional media that have historically revealed scores to anxiously amassed audiences, their allegations that Sarkozy’s stand smacks of cynical ulterior motive seem a tad ironic. In other words, even in highly regulated French electoral politics, there’s still room for what Colbert might call “truthiness.”