Before turning on the charm to win over voters, a French presidential candidate must first persuade 500 elected officials of the worthiness of his or her bid for France’s highest office and have them sign off on it. Since 1976, every contender for the French presidency must, by law, gather 500 such signatures to see their candidacy validated by France‘s panel of so-called sages, the Constitutional Council.
The signatures presented for approval are officially called présentations, but colloquially they are known as parrainages – literally, “Godfatherings” or sponsorships.
The rule is meant to limit the number of candidates on offer at the ballot box and filter out some of the more eccentric bids. Before 1976 would-be candidates only needed 100 elected officials to sign off, but when that put no fewer than 12 names on the presidential ballot in 1974 the bar was raised to 500. And yet that still didn’t stop a record 16 candidates from making the ballot in 2002, with extraordinary results.
For 2022, more than 40 candidates have thrown their hats in the ring – but the considerable challenge of obtaining the 500 required signatures to make each of those bids official is bound to cut the list down to size by March.
Who can sign off on a candidate?
Presidential candidates are required to seek out signatures far and wide. Since 1962, conditions laid out in law to preclude bids that are purely local in scope mean that one candidate’s list of sponsors must represent at least 30 different French départments (there are currently 101) and no more than 50 signatures can come from any single one.
An elected official can sponsor only one candidate and that choice is final. Should the selected candidate bow out of the race early, too bad; the official’s signature cannot go to anyone else.
The contenders’ quests for signatures get regular media attention as a presidential election nears. Small-town mayors are often solicited by would-be candidates for their precious endorsements, but the list of eligible officials extends well beyond town halls. France has a vast litany of local, municipal, regional and national official posts: For the 2022 vote, some 42,433 individuals elected to 46,157 positions (some hold more than one elected office) are eligible to sponsor candidates, according to the Interior Ministry.
That laundry list includes city and town mayors as well as the mayors of city districts (arrondissements, as in Paris or Marseille); senators; members of the lower-house National Assembly; regional and departmental councillors; and French members of the European Parliament.
Also fair game: Urban-area presidents; Paris city councillors; the presidents of the executive councils of Corsica and Martinique; the presidents of French Polynesia and the government of New Caledonia in the South Pacific; councillors of the Assembly of French nationals abroad; and the presidents of consular councils.
What does the race for signatures look like?
The official period for collecting signatures only lasts four weeks. By law, collecting must begin on the 10th Friday (February 4 this year) before the first round of the presidential election and close on the sixth Friday before the first round. That puts the deadline for filing forms to the Constitutional Council (by post!) on March 4 this year, at 6pm sharp.
But in practice, contenders would be foolhardy to wait for February to get started.
For the least established or most controversial candidates, the footwork involved in corralling officials can be arduous and the competition fierce. Some begin canvassing for signature pledges a year ahead of time. And woe betide the hopeful who stops stumping for sponsors at 500 – a wise candidate pads the figure with many more as a buffer against, for instance, disqualifying administrative errors on the signature forms filed.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a degree of gamesmanship among the best-connected candidates – usually the ones who share the party banner of thousands of elected officials nationwide – to make a splash with many more signatures than the 500 required. In 2017, conservative Les Républicains candidate François Fillon led the way with more than 3,600.
Once the Constitutional Council validates the signatures, collects candidate statements attesting to their incomes and business interests, and green-lights the bids, the government must publish the official list of presidential candidates no later than the fourth Friday before the first round. In 2022, the full official slate of candidates is due out by March 11.
Are the signatures made public?
Yes – and for some candidates, therein lies the problem.
A 2016 law requires that the names and qualifications of each and every sponsor be published by the Constitutional Council in the interest of increased transparency. Previously, 500 sponsors’ names, drawn at random, were published for each candidate. The names are published regularly, updated twice a week for all to see on the Constitutional Council’s website.
The increased transparency may already have given some potential sponsors pause for thought ahead of the 2017 election, when only 34 percent of eligible elected officials signed off on a candidate, down from 36 percent five years earlier.
The principle has been criticised by Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left as well as Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour on the far right. Each lacks the deep roots in local government from which to draw easy signatures but enjoys a high profile in the public discourse and – more to the point – in presidential polling. Yet they remain at greater risk of falling short of the 500-signature minimum despite their significant public backing.
Some political analysts, like Bruno Cautrès, a researcher at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po university, say the rule is necessary nevertheless.
“It isn’t about creating obstacles, as some suggest, but introducing filters that exclude far-fetched candidacies and have a necessary structuring effect on the campaign,” Cautrès told FRANCE 24 in November.
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