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Candidate endorsements enrage small parties, again

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2012-03-06

Under French law, presidential hopefuls need the backing of 500 mayors to become bona fide candidates. Political parties out of the mainstream say the practice is undemocratic.

Close to one-in-five French voters plan to cast their ballot in favour of far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the country’s upcoming presidential election, according to recent opinion polls. But Le Pen’s supporters say her name may not even appear on the ballots come April 22. That is because she is yet to secure the signatures of 500 mayors required of all presidential candidates under French law.

Barring the far-right National Front (FN) from participating in the election may be welcome news to some, but Le Pen is only one presidential hopeful among many, and of all political stripes, who struggle with the endorsement system – known in France as “parrainages”. Candidates representing small political parties from left, right and centre have slammed the practice as fundamentally undemocratic.

After repeated calls to overhaul the election law, non-mainstream candidates may now get some help from the very sponsors they court for signatures. On January 12, Jacques Pelissard, the mayor of Lons-le-Saunier in eastern France, said in a statement that he hoped “the endorsement system will be reformed with the objective of ending the current difficulties”. His call was significant: Pelissard is the president of the Association of French Mayors (AMF) and a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party.

“It’s too late to change the law for the upcoming election, but the system has to change,” Pelissard told France 24. “We have to find a system that bestows on candidates the credibility to run for the presidency, while also avoiding the exclusion of candidates who have enough support among the electorate.”

A veto power

Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist at the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), says the endorsement system was introduced in the 1960s, at a time when French presidents began to be elected by popular vote. The law demands that candidates get the approval of at least 500 elected officials – in practice, mostly mayors – to run for the country’s highest office.

“Back then it was justified as a means to support pluralism,” said Camus. “By offering his signature the official is not endorsing the candidate’s ideas; he is merely saying ‘I think it is okay for this or that political party to field this candidate [for the elections]’.”

But for the likes of mayor Pelissard the endorsement process has become too restrictive. Some mayors may use it as a de facto veto power to bar candidates from rival parties. Others who are not affiliated to a political party may refrain from endorsing candidates for fear they will be stigmatized by officials higher up on whom they depend for the allocation of funds.

“Lots of mayor’s don’t give their signature to anyone,” said Dominique Martin, the National Front official in charge of overseeing the collection of signatures. “Their anonymity is not protected and they simply don’t want problems with regional officials when they need to ask for subsidies for local projects.”

To overcome the problem, Pelissard has suggested a reform of the law to allow each mayor to give two endorsements: one in line with their ideological inclination and a second as a “democratic” gesture.

While the far-left New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) welcomed efforts to reform the current law, it said people should not be deceived about the law itself. “The endorsement system was created by the major political parties specifically to prevent others from challenging their power,” party spokeswoman Christine Poupin said.

Poupin said her party favoured an endorsement system in which citizens offered signatures to validate a party’s candidate. “It should be a more participative process where normal people can be involved,” the NPA spokeswoman added.

Bad ‘carbon footprint’

Even as the debate continues to rage in France, half of the presidential hopefuls say they may be forced to prematurely quit the race for lack of signatures. Besides the FN’s Marine Le Pen and the NPA candidate Philippe Poutou, ecology-minded centrist Corrine Lepage, rural right-winger Frédéric Nihous, conservative Christian Democrat Christine Boutin, and EU-sceptic Nicolas Dupont-Aignan have all warned they are struggling to reach the endorsement quota.

These candidates also complained that the practice taxed party resources before the real election campaign even started. “We have to mobilize hundreds of party members and travel thousands of kilometers across France to find all the signatures… the carbon footprint for this system is very bad,” the NPA’s Poupin joked.

However, not everyone was ready to laugh off the controversy. The FN’s Martin pointed out that his party was blocked from running in the 1981 presidential election because of missing signatures.

“The current system leads to confusion and could get in the way of true, democratic debate,” mayor Pelissard insisted, defending his “double” signature reform. “We have to cut the false connection between the signature and ideological support.”

Date created : 2012-01-23


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