French Presidential Election 2022: Road To Elysee And The Fundamentals Of French Election System
The Presidential election of France's 5th Republic is days away. In a nation like India that seldom finds time to breathe amidst its own endless election cycles, observing another nation gear up for elections is somewhat fascinating. Democracies around the world function in different ways, yet, there is something quite common that citizens of all democratic nations share - it is the crescendo that builds up as the day of the election nears.
France's elections will be held on the 10th of April and the 24th of April. We'll take a brief look at France's election system.
France's Fifth Republic
France is currently in its 5th Republic. It began in 1958 when a coup at the hands of the French military in colonial Algeria convinced officials in Paris to dissolve the parliament. The government feared that the military might extend its control beyond Africa. To counter this possibility, the government called former general Charles De Gaulle out of retirement and urged him to hold the country together. De Gaulle had done something quite similar during the post-liberation years of the 2nd World War.
Under De Gaulle, a new constitution was crafted. Under this government, the president has substantial power. The president holds a term of 5 years (which was originally 7 years). Since the 1962 change to the constitution, He/She is directly elected by the French people.
France’s Fifth Republic in 1958 replaced a parliamentary system, which had suffered from a weak executive and governments falling in quick succession, with a system of strong presidents elected (originally) for seven-year mandates.
In this republic, the president appoints a prime minister to lead the parliament. The parliament comprises of National Assembly and Senate. The president also controls the armed forces and France's nuclear arsenal. He/She can dissolve parliament and hold referendums on laws or constitutional changes.
A caveat to the president's power is 'co-habitation'. This is when the president is from a different political party and a majority of politicians in the parliament are from a different political party. In such a scenario, the president must choose a prime minister who will be accepted by the parliament.
To reduce the chances of a 'cohabitation', in 2002 the presidential term was reduced from seven years to five years to match that of the parliamentary mandate.
A French president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. This wasn't the case before a change to the constitution made by Sarkozy in 2008.
In France, the President is the keystone of French institutions and an embodiment of France's sovereignty. The President is elected by direct universal suffrage unlike the electoral system in the US, where the president is elected by an electoral college. In France too, a president was elected by an electoral college up until 1962, when a referendum was held and the electoral college gave way to direct election.
The French Election System
The French election system consists of two rounds and voting for both rounds is always held on Sundays.
7 weeks before the 2nd round, the official list of candidates is published. To officially be a candidate, contenders must, among other things, be nominated by at least 500 elected representatives (e.g. mayors, deputies). This system is known as parrainages in French. It roughly translates to 'Godfatherings'.
Contenders must also provide statements laying out their business interests and financial status. This transparency is necessary to ensure healthy elections.
4 weeks before the 2nd round, the official electoral campaign begins. Contrary to America, there is an upper limit on spending which is monitored by a committee. Campaign financing is regulated quite strictly in France.
For the upcoming elections, a 1st round candidate cannot spend more than €16,851,000. A candidate who garners enough votes to move to the 2nd round has an upper limit of €22,509,000 on spending.
For comparison, in the US elections, incumbent Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg spent €8.8 million each on just two 30 second campaign ads during a super bowl commercial break.
In France, campaigns must be privately financed, namely by political parties or by individual donors. Companies are not allowed to make donations and individuals cannot donate more than €4,600 per year.
This regulation of campaign financing ensures the vitality of the democratic process is maintained. It also neutralises the influence of BigMoney on electoral results, ensuring the integrity of the democratic process is maintained.
Unlike some other countries, these laws don't merely exist on text, they are implemented. Former President Nicholas Sarkozy was convicted and sentenced to 1 year in jail for surpassing the financing cap during the 2012 elections.
Candidates who get more than 5 per cent of the vote are also reimbursed by the French State. 47.5 per cent of their electoral spending is reimbursed. This is to ensure that candidates are not beholden to anyone and can advocate the interests of the French State honestly. This is quite different from the influence Political Action Committees (PACs) and super-PACs have on presidential candidates in America.
Once the campaign officially begins, each candidate must have strictly the same amount of airtime on TV and radio. This is known as temps de parole or speaking time. However once the clock strikes midnight on Friday (8th April this year), a silence électorale comes into effect, which lasts till the polls close on Sunday at 8 pm (10th April this year). This is a time when the media is not allowed to quote candidates or cite opinion polls. The French media instead grant the voters some time for silent reflection amidst the chaos of elections, before they go and cast their votes.
Once the 1st round is complete, this cycle repeats itself: Equal speaking time for each finalist until midnight on the Friday before the April 24 voting and then “electoral silence” till the polls close at 8 pm on the big Sunday.
2 weeks before the 2nd round, 1st round of the election is held. If no candidate wins over 50 per cent of the vote a 2nd round is held. Technically, a candidate can win the race to Elysee in the 1st round of voting by securing more than 50 per cent of the vote, although it is worth flagging that no candidate for France's top post has managed that.
The two candidates with the most votes in 1st round qualify for the 2nd round. Whoever wins this, becomes the President of France and Co-Prince of Andorra.
This 2 round system has led to a popular saying in France - 'in the 1st round, a French votes with his/her heart, in the 2nd round, a French votes with his/her head.' In the 1st round, voters can choose the candidate who represents them the best but in the 2nd round, voters must choose out of the remaining two options, the two finalists who have entered the 2nd round. Lesser of two evils, as some call it cynically.
The 1st round of the election will be held on this Sunday. Incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and National Rally's Marine Le Pen will most likely be the two candidates who will move to the 2nd round. A survey published this week by Harris Interactive shows Macron's second-round lead at its narrowest yet, at 51.5 percent against Le Pen's 48.5 percent. The 2nd round in this election might end up being much tighter than the 2017 duel between Marcon and Le Pen in which Macron won with more than 66 per cent of the vote.
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