5 things to know about French presidential campaign financing

Candidates in France's upcoming presidential election will need to respect strict campaign finance rules or risk legal repercussions.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under house arrest after breaking campaign finance rules.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under house arrest after breaking campaign finance rules. So what limitations to presidential candidates have to respect? (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

Presidential campaigns in France are subject to strict financing rules. Here’s what you need to know:

Spending is capped 

The amount of money that candidates can spend during a presidential election is limited at €16.85 million for those competing in the first round. The two top-polling candidates from the first round go through to a second round and they’re allowed to spend an extra €5.66 million, taking their total campaign spend up to €22.51 million. 

The French spending limit is far below that applied at publicly funded candidates last US presidential election, which was set at €103.7 million. In 2020 though, Donald Trump and Joe Biden obtained an estimated total of $6.6bn in private donations. US candidates which rely on private sources of finance do not face any limits on how much they can spend. 

The government pays for some campaign costs

Presidential candidates in the first round who win more than 5 percent of the vote can receive up to around €8 million from the government to reimburse their campaign costs. Those who win less than 5 percent only get up to €800,423 reimbursed by the state. 

All candidates who meet the conditions to run in the first round, regardless of their vote share, receive €200,000 of public money to campaign. 

Candidates running second round campaigns can have up to €10.7 million reimbursed by the state. 

The biggest spenders usually win 

Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the second round of the 2017 election, after outspending her by more than €4 million.

Other examples from recent history also suggest that spending big pays off – Nicolas Sarkozy won the 2007 presidential election after outspending his rivals and Chirac won the 1995 and 2002 elections as the biggest spender. 

One recent exception is the 2012 election in which Nicolas Sarkozy lost to François Hollande in the second round despite spending more money. That year, Sarkozy didn’t receive any reimbursement from the state to cover campaign costs after breaching the spending limit. He was officially left with close to €23 million to cover himself. 

However, this isn’t always the case. In 2012 Nicolas Sarkozy lost to François Hollande despite spending more money. 

Private financing is strictly regulated

Individuals cannot loan money to presidential candidates, but can make donations of up to €4,600. Cash payments, as opposed to bank transfers and cheques, are limited to €150. Candidates are required to keep detailed records of who pays them money. 

Businesses and organisations (apart from political parties) cannot make donations to a presidential candidate. 

A law passed after the 2017 election decreed that candidates could no longer loan money from financial organisations based outside of the European Economic Community.

This means that Marine Le Pen’s loan of more than €10 million from a bank in Hungary in January was perfectly legal but Russian loans – which she used to finance her 2017 presidential bid – are no longer permitted.

Those who break the rules face heavy (albeit often delayed) penalties 

The Commission nationale des comptes de campagne et des financements politiques monitors campaign accounts and political financing of candidates in French elections. Set featured image

If it finds irregularities, it can ask judicial authorities to launch an investigation. 

Last year a court sentenced Sarkozy to one year in prison (which is being served under house arrest), for spending close to double the legal limit during his failed attempt to win re-election in 2012. 

READ MORE Ex French president Sarkozy given one-year sentence for illegal campaign financing

The case was known as the Bygmalion affair, after the name of the public relations firm hired by Sarkozy to orchestrate a blitz of lavish US-style election rallies. Executives of the firm admitted to using a system of fake invoices to mask the real cost of the events.

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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.