During election campaigns in France, the rules on media coverage are stringent and strictly enforced – but even outside of these periods, regulators demand balanced coverage.
President Macron is due to take part in a lengthy television interview, broadcast by TF1 and LCI, on Wednesday, December 15th.
He has not yet declared that he will run for a second term, but all the indications are that he will, and political rivals – notably Les Republicains’ presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse, who cancelled her own TV interview because it clashed with Macron’s later-announced appearance – are up in arms, claiming the President is taking advantage of his position for an evening of undeclared campaigning.
“We can not have a ‘candidate president’ who is able to access television channels on demand and campaign for hours, while his opponents must be satisfied with five minutes to respond,” she said during a recent campaign trail visit to Calais.
But is Macron actually breaking any rules?
Enforcing political air time rules on TV and radio in France is the responsibility of the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA), which was set up in 1989 to regulate electronic media, including radio and TV.
In 2017, it issued warnings to radio stations RTL and Europe 1 over ‘strong imbalances’ in the on-air speaking time of candidates in that year’s legislative elections.
And, earlier this year, it instructed TV and radio to consider Eric Zemmour a candidate – making him subject to campaigning airtime rules – even before he had formally declared his intention to run.
There is also a certain amount of self-serving self-regulation from the political parties themselves. They pay attention to TV, radio and print-media coverage, and are ready enough to complain if they believe they’re being treated unfairly, as Pécresse proved recently.
During an election year, the rules become increasingly strict as polling day approaches. But Macron’s TV interview takes place during a period in which standard rules apply – which oblige TV and radio stations to generally respect the a principle of pluralism. Because next year is a Presidential election year, these rules apply until midnight on December 31st.
Until then, one-third of all political speaking time in the media is given to the government. This includes presidential speeches and interviews.
The other two thirds are reserved for other politicians, spokespeople and commentators.
Balancing this weighting of political discourse is the responsibility of TV and radio stations – TF1 and LCI must now calculate if they need to give additional time to Macron’s political opponents.
So, the rules allow for President Macron’s big interview on December 15th – but they insist that broadcasters balance it with other political views.
Election year rules
There are two stages of TV and radio coverage rules in an election year – which follow, in turn, the Principle of Equity and the Principle of Equality.
Prior to the formal campaigning period – which this year begins on March 28th, ahead of the first round of voting on April 10th – a two-step Principle of Equity is in effect.
The Principle of Equity
Between January 1st and March 27th, 2022, audiovisual media in France must “ensure a strict balance of speaking time and airtime for candidates and their supporters,” the CSA website states.
The proportion of airtime given to each hopeful candidate is allocated according to their relevance (which is determined mostly through their popularity in the opinion polls).
The system is designed so that fringe candidates are not given the same amount of exposure as popular candidates like Macron (assuming he will run), Pécresse or Zemmour.
Importantly, the President “may be considered a presumptive candidate” during this period, even if he hasn’t declared, the president of the CSA told the Senate in early December.
As such, Macron’s speaking time between from January 1st will be counted “in the same way as already declared candidates”. He will be much less free to take part in lengthy solo TV discussions than he is before the New Year.
This equity principle is enforced further when the official list of presidential candidates is published by the Constitutional Council. In 2022. That list will be published on March 8th.
Between that date the the start of the official campaigning period, equity of speaking time and airtime between candidates and candidates’ supporters must be respected “under comparable programming conditions”.
This is known as the period of “reinforced equity”. So, if Macron were to have a two-hour interview then, other candidates could expect some interview time, but still based on their likelihood of election.
The Principle of Equality
From March 28th, the date the official campaigning period for the 2022 Presidential elections begins, audiovisual media must respect strict equality of speaking time and airtime – this is why candidates taking part in first-round televised debates have timers to ensure one of them does not hog the entire broadcast.
This strict equality of air time – similar rules are in place for the print media, too – runs until the day before voting takes place, when any campaigning is halted to give voters time and space to consider their options without pressure. No campaigning is allowed, either, on voting day itself – until after the polls have closed and first estimates have been published.
In 2022, there will be no campaigning at any time on April 9th and until after 8pm on April 10th, when polling has ended.
The same Equality rules kick in again for campaigning ahead of the second ballot until the pre-vote campaign blackout begins on Saturday, April 23rd. The next France President will be revealed shortly after 8pm on Sunday, April 24th.