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Why are French political rallies exempt from Covid-19 crowd limits?

Supporters gather at a rally of far-right presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour.
Supporters gather at a rally of far-right presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour. In France, the right to hold political rallies is enshrined by law - meaning that Covid rules don't apply. (Photo by Stefano RELLANDINI / AFP)
As Covid cases soar in France the government has imposed limits on the size of large gatherings, but political meetings are exempt from this rule - here's why.

Although the French 2022 presidential campaign has yet to officially begin, les meetings politiques (political rallies) are well underway. 

During these events, it is common to see party supporters on their feet, unmasked, screaming support for their favourite candidate or, in the case of some of far-right polemicist Eric Zemmour’s fans, attacking anti-racism activists. 

As France tops 200,000 daily Covid cases, this has raised serious concerns about the potential public health impact of these rallies, which are typically held inside. 

On December 27th, the government announced that it would introduce such capacity limits for all indoor events at 2,000 people and for all outdoor events at 5,000 people. But there was one important exception. 

“It is clear that these measures that I have announced do not concern political rallies,” said Prime Minister Jean Castex. 

Political parties can ask rally attendees to show a health pass – but are not obliged too. 

So why is that? 

The right to hold political meetings is enshrined in article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a declaration that was created and ratified in Paris. The European Court of Human Rights also enshrines the liberty to hold political meetings. 

The French government has argued that it would be unconstitutional to apply capacity limits to political meetings, which are protected under an 1881 law.

According to Article 58 of the current French constitution, “The Constitutional Council ensures the regularity of presidential elections.” This means that the freedom to hold political meetings could only be scrapped if the council says so. 

The government has drawn extensively on rulings from the country’s Constitutional Council, which has said that Covid restrictions cannot be used to ban political rallies. In May, it also said that the health pass does not have to be applied to political rallies – a judgement reiterated in November.

And it’s not just rallies, political marches and demonstrations are also exempt from restrictions, demos were specifically exempt from even the first, extremely strict, lockdown that France imposed back in March 2020.

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So what will political parties do?

Although they legally can organise large rallies, many candidates recognise that holding potential super-spreader events would not be a good idea.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM), has announced that it would respect the capacity limits imposed on cultural events during its political rallies ahead of the election – which as they stand at present means no more than 2,000 people at indoor rallies or 5,000 people outdoors.

The Parti Socialiste candidate Anne Hidalgo, centre-right les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécrésse and Green candidate Yannick Jadot all say they will all do the same. 

READ ALSO Who’s who in the race to unseat Macron? 

Candidates including Hidalgo have required supporters to carry a valid health pass to attend rallies – but others like far right leader Marine Le Pen and far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon have categorically refused to do so.

Le Pen, Zemmour  and Mélenchon have also signalled that they will not respect the capacity limits that apply to cultural events – Mélenchon said that to do so would be akin to committing “liberticide”.  

On Monday, the Prime Minister announced that the Interior Ministry and the Constitutional Council would bring together all political parties, “to reach an agreement on some rules that can protect us given the health situation.”

He said any new rules would have to take into account the “specificity of this fundamental activity – that is to say, the exercise of democracy”. 

Medical professionals have blasted politicians for allowing large political rallies to go ahead. 

“We are in the middle of an epidemic. If these meetings don’t follow the same recommendations as those for concerts, they will massively lead to further circulation of the virus, while at the same time, the Prime Minister is asking us to make an effort,” said Constance Delaugerre, a hospital virologist. 

“The virus doesn’t give a damn about whether we are in a political rally or a music concert, said Djillali Annane, head of the intensive care unit of Garches hospital, on LCI. “The risk of spread is the same”

French pop stars, including Julien Doré, joked that they would re-brand their concerts as political rallies in order to allow performances to go ahead.

The year 2020 saw postponement of the second round of polling in local elections.

However, the French Constitution also stipulates limits on the length of mandate for the president, which means that the presidential elections – scheduled for April – cannot be postponed without the approval of the Constitutional Council. 


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