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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OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.