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The Presidential Campaign Where Money Doesn't Matter

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Obama is expected to raise more than $1 billion for his re-election campaign in 2012. This is an unimaginable amount for a French candidate, for one important reason: on the other side of the Atlantic, the funding of presidential elections is strictly regulated. To Americans, these restrictions might seem like an infringement of liberty, but in France, they allow minority voices to be heard.

Unlike America, where candidates can spend as much as they like on campaigning if they raise private funds, in France spending on campaigning is capped. In return, the state reimburses a significant amount of campaign expenses. For those who only reach the first round, campaign expenses are restricted to 16.8 million euros. A trifle for Americans. What's more, gifts from private companies are prohibited. These two conditions have important implications for French democracy.

Since the 1970s, a dozen people have run for the presidency at each election. Capping expenses enables small parties to participate without being disadvantaged compared to the two biggest parties, Parti socialiste (PS, the main left wing party) and Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, the right wing governing party). Candidates are entitled to public subsidy after the election. When you obtain more than 5 percent of the popular vote, you automatically get 50 percent of the authorized amount back. For example, in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy, who spent 21 million euros for his campaign, got 10 million euros back from the state. Even candidates who get less than 5 percent can also apply for public money. Most of them are used to getting much smaller scores, and have tiny budgets of around 500,000 euros. But public money usually covers almost all their expenses.

With financial obstacles removed, there is only one thing really standing in the way of the would-be candidates. Before entering the race, candidates have a major hurdle to get over. They need 500 signatures from the people's representatives, mostly mayors. But you have to be pretty "out there" not to get this number. Almost anyone can achieve it.

Subsidizing the campaign of non-representative candidates who sometimes don't even reach 1 percent in the first round can seem pointless. But it allows a wide range of political opinions to be expressed before the second round, when the final choice between the two favorites takes place. The debate can only become richer. In comparison, U.S. citizens usually have only one chance to choose between Republican or Democrat, and little else. The protest vote stays very much in the background.

In our country, influential people from outside politics can even enter the campaign to promote issues neglected by politicians. It was the case of Nicolas Hulot, in 2007. Well-known on prime time television for having presented the "Ushuaïa" broadcast about nature, he wanted to make ecological issues a priority in the debate, months before the election. His popularity encouraged the main political leaders to adopt policies in favor of the environment.

In theory, nothing prevents independent candidates from running for president in the U.S.A. They can even apply for public fundraising. In practice, this never happens, as John McCain and Barack Obama showed in 2008. Both refused public money, because they would then be limited by the ceiling, representing about 25 percent of the budget usually spent in the campaign by Republicans and Democrats. Neither could they accept private funds after their investiture by their party's convention, three months before the election. Too restrictive! Instead, 1.6 billion dollars were spent overall on campaign budgets.

Limiting the state's powers is deeply set in American culture, and the fact money plays such a key role is not a problem in itself. The devil as always is in the details. In this case, the detail is who are the donors? Billionaires, trade unions, oil companies, Wall Street banks, or insurance companies funding a candidate, have a clear goal: to directly influence the race. And they have an efficient weapon to inject their money in the campaign: super Political Action Committees (PAC). Since the decision of the Supreme Court, in 2010, organizations can make unlimited contributions to support one particular candidate. Before this, a donor couldn't give a candidate more than 2500 dollars for the primaries and 2,500 for the elections. According to Democracy 21, an activist group promoting campaign financing reform, "the removal of limits on contributions to candidates would return us to the system of legalized corruption and bribery that existed before the Watergate scandals."

The French system of public funds allowing minority parties to flourish might look quite eccentric from across the pond. Actually, it prevents this kind of abuse. Of course, lobbying exists even during the campaign. But once elected, the new president doesn't owe victory to his generous donors.