Village mayors are the forgotten heroes and heroines of French politics, hard-working, little paid and frequently ignored.
Once every five years, however, the micro-bosses of tiny places – there are at least 30,000 of them – become the most flattered and sought-after politicians in France.
Their telephone rings constantly. At the other end of the line there is likely to be a young campaign worker – and occasionally a famous politician – begging M/Mme le/la maire to give them his/her autograph.
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It is that time again.
Anyone who wants to put their name on the ballot paper for the first round of the presidential election on April 10th needs to assemble 500 endorsements – parrainages – by elected officials.
That is true if you are President Emmanuel Macron; it’s true if you are one of the two perennial Trotskyist candidates; it’s true if you are Jean Lassalle, a Pyreneen politician of no clear ideology who took 1.21 percent of the vote in 2017.
By my reckoning 20 people at least have “entered the presidential race” (not yet including President Macron). Only a dozen of them will qualify for the official first round campaign from March 28th.
Gathering 500 signatures from a pool of 42,000 qualified people – ranging from parliamentarians to the mayors of rural communes – may sound easy enough. It is not.
First of all, it can’t just be any 500 names. They must come from at least 30 of the 100 or so départements or overseas fragments of France. No more than 10 percent of them – 50 names – can come from a single département. No elected official can give his signature twice.
If you are the candidate of one of the long-established parties or political families with scores of deputies and regional or departmental councillors, there is no problem.
If you come from outside the old mainstream – even if you have significant support in the opinion polls – it is an uphill slog. Even Marine Le Len (17 percent in the polls), even Eric Zemmour (13 percent) even Jean-Luc Mélenchon (9-10 percent) are struggling to find their 500 endorsements this year.
Time is running out. The official opening date for the autograph-hunting season is January 30th. The closing date is March 4th, five weeks later.
At present the candidates can gather only “promises” of signatures. The xenophobic essayist and TV pundit Eric Zemmour says that he has 337. Marine Le Pen (far right Rassemblement National) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (hard left, La France Insoumise) have around 400 each.
They have eight weeks left. They have been scouring the empty quarters of France for four or five months already. “Promises” of signature, like all other political promises, are fragile.
To be sure of getting on the ballot paper, experienced campaigners say that you need between 600 and 700 “promises”. You then have a good chance of harvesting the 500 actual signatures.
Eric Zemmour, especially, seems genuinely worried. He has been travelling through rural France in recent days saying what wonderful people village mayors are. He has been promising that his planned resurrection of a powerful, traditional and, above all, white France will start in the “neglected” countryside. As a result he has increased his tally – if you believe his campaign staff – by 7 endorsements.
Pronouncements on parrainages should be taken with a pinch of salt. I know of no instance of a French presidential candidate with a substantial following who has failed to reach the ballot paper for want of endorsements.
On the other hand, it does seem to have become harder this year. Village mayors, by their sheer numbers, provide a vital resource for upstart or radical candidates. They accounted for over 70 percent of all parrainages in 2017.
They are increasingly reluctant to put their names to the official forms. Most mayors of small communes are elected on a non-partisan ticket. Endorsement is not the same as political support but this is a simple-minded and aggressive, social media age. Many mayors fear that they will be tarred by their signatures.
Zemmour and Mélenchon complain about a 2016 rule-change which enforces the publication of the names of the sponsors of presidential campaigns. They say that this is bad for them and bad for democracy.
Actually, it is not entirely a new rule. A random selection of 500 signatures for each candidate has always been published. Some of the mainstream candidates show off by collecting thousands of names. Now all endorsements will be published on-line as they arrive at the Conseil Constitutionnel from January 30th.
On past experience, I would say that both Le Pen and Mélenchon will get their signatures easily enough. Zemmour may have more trouble. He is paying the price of his violent language and his Soviet-like efforts to revise French history.
A Zemmour exclusion could have a significant effect on the campaign. After his surge to 19 percent in first round voting intentions in September, he has deflated to around 13 percent. If he was barred from the first round those voters would scatter between Le Pen, the centre-right candidate Valérie Pécresse and “abstention/no show”.
A majority, I believe, would go to Le Pen. It is not surprising therefore to hear that Pécresse’s party, Les Républicains (LR), is thinking (confidentially) of sliding a few signatures in Zemmour’s direction.
Pécresse, the LR believes, has a good chance of reaching Round Two if there is a three-horse race on the Right and Far Right. She has less chance of seizing second place in Round One if she is in a straight battle on the Right with Le Pen.
“Eric Zemmour has to run,” a close associate of Pécresse told Europe 1 radio website off the record. “If he can’t get his endorsements, we will do what is necessary.”
Officially, any such manouevres are indignantly denied. Believe the denials if you wish.
Conclusion: the qualification rules need to be revisited. A system which threatens to exclude three of the five most popular candidates is no longer for fit for purpose.
Some sort of filter is essential. A first round with 12 candidates is unwieldy enough. Imagine if there were 50 or 100 people on the ballot-paper.
Like them or detest them, Mélenchon, Le Pen and Zemmour represent powerful currents of French opinion. It would be absurd – and dangerous – if any of them was to be excluded on a technicality.
Let them be beaten in the ballot box.