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The French Presidency Is a Bargain

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Ten candidates -- that's the field of presidential hopefuls competing for votes in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday, April 22. Some of them are household names, like incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy and his main challenger, the socialist Francois Hollande. Others are still relatively unknown, even to French voters, such as the candidate representing the Trotskyist party, Lutte Ouvrière, or the head of the LaRouche movement in France (both currently polling at 0 percent).

The multitude of candidates stems in part from a two-round electoral system, whereby everyone competes in the first round but only the two candidates with the highest number of votes face off in the second round (on May 6). What also enables so many candidates to run is that French electoral campaigns are cheap. As long as you can gather 500 signatures of support from about 47,000 elected representatives throughout France, you can stand for election to the presidency.

Money is a good thing to have in a French electoral campaign, to be sure, but there is not that much money can buy: a good Web team; campaign posters; computers; t-shirts and gadgets; airfares; tolls and fuel for the cars of the party operatives who criss-cross the country; and the organization of campaign rallies -- some small, some massive -- such as Sarkozy's recent meeting on the Place de la Concorde and Hollande's big rally in Vincennes. That's about it.

By law, campaign expenses are subjected to a maximum ceiling, and spending in excess of that is illegal. The state also subsidizes candidates. It gives about eight million euros, half of the maximum amount of expenses allowed in the first round, to those who obtain more than 5% of the votes in the first round and about 800,000 euros to those who do not make the 5% cut. In 2007, Sarkozy spent 21 million euros to win the presidential contest, while his main opponent, the socialist Ségolène Royal, spent 20 million euros. French politicians are, therefore, not enslaved to special interests or Super-PACs as they are in the U.S.

Televised political ads are banned -- only a small number of "statements" by each candidate, following strict rules on time and editing, can be broadcast on television and only during the five-week period of the "official" campaign as defined by law.

France enforces its mantra of "equality" all the way to the finish line of the presidential campaign. For five weeks before the second round of the election, the law mandates that all candidates are given (truly) equal time on television and radio. If an anchor, whether on a public or private channel, interviews Sarkozy or Hollande on prime time, for example, she has to interview the New Anti-Capitalist Party candidate Philippe Poutou and the "Debout la République" candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (both currently polling at 1 percent) on prime time for the same length of time over the next few days. Airwave time and exposure is monitored and enforced by the state's Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel (High Council for Audiovisual).

The positive consequence of these rules is that a candidate can spend almost no money and still be granted equal access and time on all the major television and radio outlets. This enables the emergence of small candidates and can rejuvenate democracy. The biggest surprise of this campaign so far has been the success of the "Front de Gauche" candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a Socialist renegade who holds revolutionary views based on resistance to capitalism and the neo-liberal diktats. He is expected to come in fourth or even third position on Sunday. It is not money that made him an instant sensation, and he does not need to attend fundraising dinners or court a wealthy sponsor to stay in the race and make a difference. His excellent political skills and gift for oration have enabled him to marshall and crystallize the discontent on the far left.

While the French campaign season may seem preferable to that in the U.S., it is by no means perfect. Many of these rules lead to absurd results. In 2007, four candidates, who ended up cumulatively with 4.1% of the votes, hogged one third of all air time in the two weeks preceding the election.

Worse, these rules can have perverse effects on democracy. Because all 10 candidates have to be interviewed for equal amounts of time, the coverage of all issues is superficial. The substance of the candidates' platforms cannot be discussed, just when these debates are the most necessary, right before voters make up their mind. Moreover, there are just so many issues that can be addressed, and so the campaign misses the really big issues such as adjustment to globalization, euro crisis, structural reforms, and instead focuses on more trivial ones -- a candidate's personality, for example.

In the end, the overall result is not necessarily better than what it is in the United States, with its culture of sound bites, disingenuous political commercials, and openly partisan media, but at least it is cheap. This year, seeking the French presidency will cost no more than 22 million euros. French electoral politics are a bargain.

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