Could France’s upcoming presidential election risk destabilising the country, whether or not Emmanuel Macron triumphs? So far, nearly 40 candidates have declared their intention to stand in April’s poll. But to qualify, they face another hurdle: one which several key candidates, including Marine Le Pen, Éric Zemmour and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, are struggling to overcome. Together, Le Pen (16.5 per cent), Éric Zemmour (12.5 per cent) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (ten per cent) enjoy the support of nearly four in ten French voters. But they might be shut out of the race. If so, a real democratic chasm would open up, undermining the whole election and the legitimacy of the winner.
Every candidate in the presidentials must deal with the system of parrainages, which requires a person running for office to validate their eligibility. They must do so by obtaining 500 signatures from France’s elected representatives (mayors to senators) by 22 February. The system – which has long existed under the 5th Republic – is aimed at eliminating fantasy candidates. But that Le Pen, Zemmour and Mélenchon are all struggling to reach the required number of signatures, shows that this system has become far too restrictive.
So could these candidates really be shut out? It’s certainly no theoretical scenario. In 1981, when the system was less restrictive, it still prevented Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National from standing. Since 2017, these signatures have been made public. This has provoked considerable anxiety on the part of local mayors that either their voters may not approve of their assenting to a particular candidate or, worse still, that councils of a different political colour at departmental or regional level might punish local mayors by denying them subsidies. The process works against non-traditional candidates without local party bases, effectively fossilising the system. The irony is that established party candidates with meagre poll ratings have no difficulty in obtaining their signatures, like the Socialist party’s Anne Hidalgo on 2.5