Going to the polls

With a French presidential election just around the corner, competition is hotting up nicely. Kate McNally explain the intricacies of the Gallic voting system

With a French presidential election just around the corner, competition is hotting up nicely. Kate McNally explain the intricacies of the Gallic voting system

Early last year, general consensus in political circles and beyond placed one man as the clear front runner for the 2012 French presidential elections. But then Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or DSK as he is known in the media, left the political stage in cataclysmic fashion. The former head of the International Monetary Fund and almost certain candidate of the Parti Socialiste was once widely tipped to beat incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy whose shining light was fading fast with an increasingly disillusioned public. But what a difference a year makes. By all accounts DSK is political history, even in libertine France, while Sarkozy has slowly but surely climbed back up the popularity ladder and is now a likely candidate for the second round, two-man (or woman) head-to-head.

It is likely to prove an interesting gallop to the winning post, with four candidates in with a realistic shot of making the second round – polls indicate Fran�ois Hollande (Parti Socialiste), Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP), Marine Le Pen (Front National) and Fran�ois Bayrou (MoDem) all in the frame, with the smallest margins ever separating the front runners in the lead-up to the vote.

How it works

Since 2002, the president of France retains office for five years, known as the quinquennat, as opposed to the previous seven-year mandate. He or she is allowed to run for a second term but no more.

Sarkozy delayed announcing his candidature for a second term, but with the platform of the presidency giving him ample exposure, his need was not as great as others to hit the campaign road early.

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Who can vote?

In order to be eligible to vote in the French presidential elections, a person must:

n be aged 18 or over on the day of the election

n have French nationality

n have not been stripped of his or her civil or political rights

n be registered on the electoral roll

Who can stand?

In order to stand for the presidency, a candidate must fulfil the following conditions:

n be at least 23 years old

n be French

n be registered on the electoral roll

n not be deemed ineligible for any reason

n have obtained at least 500 sponsorships (parrainage)

The last measure is a way of limiting the number of candidates and ensuring their credibility. Around 50,000 people in France and French overseas territories are eligible to act as a sponsor (parrain) for a presidential candidate. They are senators, ministers, French MEPs, regional councillors, mayors and presidents of the various communaut� de communes (a legislative/administrative body for a collection of communes). In the French legislative system, only the municipal councillors are not eligible to act as a sponsor. Each sponsor is only permitted to back one candidate.

Seconds out, round one

The first round of the 2012 elections is scheduled to take place on Sunday 22 April.

It is expected that the French will turn out in numbers. In 2007, 84% of the population voted and in the run- up to these elections, polls confirmed a similar number intend to vote.

The two candidates with the most votes at the end of the first round compete against each other for the presidency in the second round.

It is possible for a candidate to be elected president after the first round if they receive 50% of the vote. However the French political system boasts several different parties, with a handful of major players, so it is unlikely this would ever happen.

Seconds out, round two

The second round is scheduled for Sunday 6 May. This leaves two weeks for the two remaining candidates to campaign intensively, and the various other parties and personalities to declare their support for either one or the other. Most political parties have strong existing allegiances and it is fairly obvious who they will support.

That said, there are historical grievances that can liven up proceedings. Dominique de Villepin, for example, the candidate for the R�publique Solidaire party, was a former prime minister under Jacques Chirac in the same party as Nicolas Sarkozy but his dislike of the latter is notorious and it must have cost him dearly on a personal level in 2007 to put his support behind Sarko for the second round.

Similarly, in the 2002 presidential elections, a protest by socialist voters against what they saw as the mis-running of the Parti Socialiste went too far and the Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in the first round. It meant that socialists, both from the centre and hard left, were left with little choice than to encourage support for their usual adversary and Jacques Chirac won a second term.

2012 main players

Fran�ois Hollande, Parti Socialiste

He beat Martine Aubry, leader of the Parti Socialiste, in a vote to represent the party in the presidential elections. (Aubry remains party leader.)

Ex-husband of S�gol�ne Royal, the PS presidential candidate last time out, Hollande is considered a safe pair of hands and supporters believe his straight man, almost dull, image counters well the ‘bling bling’ charisma of Sarkozy at a time when the country is in economic crisis.

Outlining his campaign in late January, Hollande said it was based on four principles: la lucidit�, la volont� (will), la justice and la clart� (clarity), indicating his ideals of honesty and fairness for all. He also said that he would cut the president’s salary by 30% if he wins the mandate.

Nicolas Sarkozy, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire

Despite a major slump in popularity in the latter half of his first term and some bloodied economic battles in the eurozone, as 2012 dawned, Sarkozy was back in the running.

Ironically the economic crisis in Europe could work in his favour if voters feel he is the man with the grit and experience to steer France out of the mire. Even the country’s credit rating downgrade from triple to double A in January seems to have caused few ripples among the electorate – the triple A rating has long been Sarkozy’s favourite reference to France’s economic success during his tenure. It may well prove an Achilles’ heel, however, in any televised campaign head-to-head debates.

Marine Le Pen, Front National

Taking over the reins last year from her octogenarian father Jean-Marie, Marine Le Pen has added some gloss and finesse to the far right party and appears to be successfully tempting some of the mainstream conservative voters to jump camp from the UMP. She unveiled 30 manifesto themes back in November and later revealed detailed figures to show how she would reduce France’s national debt. However the principal aims remain the same: reverse immigration numbers, reclaim sovereignty for France from the EU, and get tough on crime. Polls place her third after the first round, but there isn’t much in it.

Fran�ois Bayrou, Mouvement D�mocrate

The founder-leader of the centrally positioned MoDem party, Bayrou finished third in the first round in 2007. A popular figure, his candidacy gained momentum at the turn of the year, closing the gap in the polls at the top. He is appreciated for his integrity and determination to offer an effective alternative to the PS and UMP – could he make it France’s turn to adopt the third way?

Others likely to get a reasonable showing:

n Eva Joly, Europe Ecologie Les Verts

n Dominique de Villepin, R�publique Solidaire

n Jean-Luc M�lenchon, Front de Gauche

n Natalie Arthaud, Lutte Ouvri�re

n Herv� Morin, Nouveau Centre

n Philippe Poutou, Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste

n Nicolas Dupont-Aignon, Debout la R�publique