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What are the rules for French presidential candidates appearing on TV?

There are strict regulations for how much airtime politicians are granted in France, to avoid allegations of bias - even outside election campaign periods. This is why some have criticised French President Emmanuel Macron's TV interview, scheduled for Wednesday evening.

French President Emmanuel Macron appears on several TV screens in a broadcaster's control room
TV airtime for politicians is strictly regulated in France. Photo: Martin Bureau / AFP

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. 

READ ALSO ‘Campaigning’ Macron to give primetime interview on French TV

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.

READ ALSO OPINION: Macron won’t admit it, but he’s on the election campaign trail

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.

The rules

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.

READ ALSO Could a French electoral rule stop Zemmour from running for president?

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. 

READ ALSO Who’s who in the crowded field vying to unseat Macron in French presidential election

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.

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: Which of the 30 candidates has any chance of winning France’s 2022 presidential 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.

READ ALSO What makes a winning French presidential candidate

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POLITICS

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections. 

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