OPINION: French village mayors could sink Zemmour’s presidential bid

As France's 2022 presidential race hots up, John Lichfield examines the complicated and archaic system of 'parrainage', which could pose a major threat to the presidential campaign of xenophobic TV pundit Eric Zemmour.

OPINION: French village mayors could sink Zemmour's presidential bid
French presidential hopeful Eric Zemmour. Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

CALENDAR: What happens and when during the 2022 French presidential election

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.

Member comments

  1. This system has its good sides. Collecting endorsements from all over the country and from different administrative levels of elected officials, is a good indication of nation-wide support. In some countries, a multimillionaire willing to spend buckets of money can become president, and buy advertising on all media to create support.

    1. I dislike all Presidential systems. They concentrate far too much power for far too long into the hands of a single individual.

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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.