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A detailed primer on France’s Presidential Election 2022

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A Detailed Primer on

France’s

Presidential Election 2022

French voters will go to the polls to elect a new president – or re-elect the incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron – in two Sunday rounds on April 10 and 24. Let’s find out how the process works:

Why in April?
The French Constitution requires that the vote to select a deceased leader’s successor be held between 20 and 35 days later – in Macron’s case, it is May 13. But problematically in 2022, the other option that rule left open was for votes to be held on April 17 and May 1: the first round would have fallen on Easter Sunday, the second on the May Day holiday. Every other run-off vote since 1981 has elected the president in early May.

Who can run for president?
French nationals aged 18 and older can run under certain conditions – much younger than the US minimum age of 35, although France has yet to install a teenager in the Elysée Palace.
The conditions include being registered to vote, having not been deprived of the right to stand for office in a court of law (a common penalty in corruption convictions, for example), not being under guardianship and having duly carried out any national service obligations (France had mandatory military service until 1997). Outgoing incumbents are allowed to stand for re-election only once for a second five-year term. Officially, presidential candidates are also supposed to demonstrate “moral dignity”; but somehow that concept has never been precisely defined.

Another requirement meant to weed out the riffraff – or at least the most marginal or obviously unfit to stand – is a system known as the parrainages, literally “Godfatherings” (or sponsorships). To make the ballot as an official presidential candidate, would-be contenders must earn the signatures of 500 elected officials spread across at least 30 French departments or overseas territories certifying their support for an individual’s right to run in the election.
Hopefuls must present the 500 signatures when they apply to France’s Constitutional Council to join the official presidential election ballot. They must also provide statements detailing their financial status and business interests, which are made public in the name of transparency. The 2022 deadline for applying was March 4; the Constitutional Council published the official list of candidates on March 7.

Why 500 signatures?
Before turning on the charm to win over voters, a French presidential candidate must first persuade 500 elected officials of the worthiness of his or her bid for France’s highest office and have them sign off on it. Since 1976, every contender for the French presidency must, by law, gather 500 such signatures to see their candidacy validated by France’s panel of so-called sages, the Constitutional Council.

The signatures presented for approval are officially called présentations, but colloquially they are known as parrainages – literally, “Godfatherings” or sponsorships.

The rule is meant to limit the number of candidates on offer at the ballot box and filter out some of the more eccentric bids. Before 1976, would-be candidates only needed 100 elected officials to sign off, but when that put no fewer than 12 names on the presidential ballot in 1974 the bar was raised to 500. And yet that still didn’t stop a record 16 candidates from making the ballot in 2002, with extraordinary results.

Who can vote and who can’t?
All eligible French adults born on or before April 9, 2004 – who will be at least 18 years of age on the eve of the first round – and who are registered to vote can do so. Most voters were allowed to register until the sixth Friday (March 4 this year).

A French national can be deprived of voting rights by court decision. Citizens serving prison terms aren’t automatically ineligible, although incarcerated individuals must use a special procedure to register.

The voting process
Voting in France is a paper-based process: Each registered voter receives an envelope in the mail containing every official candidate’s platform and as many ballots – small pieces of paper inscribed with a candidate’s name – as there are candidates. From 8:00 am on Election Day, registered voters head to their assigned polling places – often a local school – to cast one of the ballots received by mail (or an identical one available at the polling place).

After a voter’s identity and assigned polling place have been verified, he or she is given an official envelope and heads into a booth, pulling closed the curtain. The voter places one name in the envelope and then brings it to a transparent ballot box where the polling chief confirms the voter’s identity, opens the slot and checks that only one envelope is deposited. The polling official then calls out, “A voté!” (“Voted!”) and the voter signs a list next to his or her name to complete the process. The voter’s Electoral Card – which looks similar to a coffeeshop fidelity card with enough boxes to mark in several elections – is stamped with the day’s date. Polls close at 6 or 7pm, except in large cities where they close at 8pm.

How does the two-round system work?
French voters go to the polls on two Sundays, two weeks apart. This two-round system has no equal in North America and is a rarity in Western Europe, with the notable exception of Portugal. But it is a popular way to pick a leader in central and eastern Europe as well as Central Asia, South America and widely across Africa.

Technically, a French president could win office in a single round of voting by scoring more than 50 percent of the vote on that first Sunday – but no contender for France’s top job has ever managed that feat. In practice, the run-off vote decides the winner between two finalists who won the most votes in the first round.

Why two rounds?
General Charles de Gaulle – a founding father of France’s Fifth Republic and its 1958 constitution, as well as the first president of France’s political modern era – was famously suspicious of political parties. He sought to curb their influence with a voting system he helped devise for choosing France’s leader by direct universal suffrage (starting with himself, as it happens, in 1965). As early as the 1940s, the World War II Resistance hero had advocated for a vote that would ultimately unite, not divide, the French public.

One effect of the system is that, potentially, representatives of every hue on the political spectrum can find themselves on the first-round ballot with little need to compromise on a unifying political line – not unlike aspiring nominees in the US party primaries.

A common refrain is that the first round is for voting with one’s heart while the second is for voting with one’s head. Voters are free to choose their (more or less) ideal candidate at the ballot box on that first Sunday, but then must select from the two candidates left standing for the second – a run-off sometimes cynically described as choosing between “the lesser of the two evils”.

President’s powers
France has features of both presidential and parliamentary systems of government. But it is clear which player enjoys the broadest powers.

French president wields more power than leaders of most other advanced democracies including Germany, the United Kingdom and even the United States. The French president not only commands the executive apparatus, including the armed forces but also tends to drive the national policymaking agenda with little parliamentary oversight.

A French president is directly elected by the people and can only be relieved of his duties by the nation’s parliament in the extraordinary circumstance of a “dereliction of his duties manifestly incompatible with the exercise of his mandate”; in contrast, the president has the power to dissolve the parliament at any time. So what does a French president do? And when does the Élysée Palace’s chief tenant have to share his or (someday) her powers?

Defence and diplomacy
Although the French Constitution, the founding text of the Fifth Republic adopted in 1958, assigns defence and diplomacy to the prime minister and the president as shared responsibilities, both areas have, in practice, become the preserve of France’s head of state. The latter is the constitutional guarantor of the nation’s independence and its territorial integrity.

As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the president chairs the national defence councils and special committees that define France’s line on military programming, deterrence, the conduct of foreign operations and counterterrorism. The French president can alone take the decision to deploy nuclear force.

A French president cannot, however, declare war on his own. The Constitution stipulates that a “declaration of war is authorised by the parliament”, although that provision has yet to be applied. The president does, however, have the power to deploy the armed forces abroad without informing the parliament in advance. The government then has three days to inform the legislative body of the operation, at which point lawmakers can hold a debate on the deployment but not a vote. Parliament does pronounce on whether or not a deployment can be extended beyond four months.

France’s president also helms the country’s diplomacy. He meets with foreign heads of state and ensures France’s representation abroad, in foreign countries and at international institutions. The president also negotiates and ratifies treaties in France’s name and is the guarantor of the country’s treaty obligations. He is also empowered to name and accredit French ambassadors abroad.

Executive branch
The French Constitution and the president’s election by direct universal suffrage accord the head of state with considerable prerogatives for governing the country.

The president names the prime minister and can terminate the prime minister’s duties. He chairs the Council of Ministers cabinet meeting, promulgates laws, can submit a draft law for approval by referendum and has the power to dissolve the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. The president sets the reform agenda for his or her government. He also has the power to convene parliament for an extraordinary session to consider a specific matter.

Beyond the Constitution, per se, the exercise of power in France over time is what has made the French president’s role so broad. From the start, Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic’s first president and one of its founding fathers, established himself as a sort of “republican monarch”, as the constitutional law expert Maurice Duverger put it in 1974.

But reforms this century further contributed to the predominance of the presidency in France. In 2000, the length of a presidential term was shortened from seven years to five, a constitutional change greenlit at the ballot box by referendum. The change brought presidential mandates into line with the five-year terms lawmakers serve in the National Assembly. The following year, the order of the legislative and presidential elections was inverted to put the presidential vote first. That move made it all the more likely that a people who had chosen their president only weeks prior would next seek to give the new leader the legislative wherewithal needed to make good on campaign pledges.

Both changes had the effect of bolstering a president’s power by removing an element of instability in French political life: They drastically reduced the risk of “cohabitation”, when a president and a prime minister hail from rival political parties.

Shared powers
Apart from those outlined above, some of the powers a French president holds are “shared” in that they require the prime minister or the relevant cabinet minister to sign off on them. One is the power to nominate individuals to certain functions, like the prefect who represents the state in each département (administrative unit) and region, the councillors of the Council of State and Court of Audit, and school district chiefs, all named in the framework of the cabinet meeting.

The French head of state also shares statutory powers with the prime minister. The president signs the orders and decrees that govern the rules in place in domains where legislation isn’t necessary.

A French president also enjoys the right to grant pardons to cancel or reduce the sentences of incarcerated individuals. The pardon decree must, however, be countersigned by the prime minister and the justice minister.

Exceptional powers
In the case of a “grave and immediate threat” to “the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the nation or the integrity of the territory” that entails an interruption in the “regular function of public powers,” a French president can invoke Article 16 of the Constitution granting him “exceptional powers” that put full executive and legislative powers at his disposal.

To implement Article 16, the head of state must nevertheless first consult with the prime minister, the presidents of the National Assembly and the upper house, i.e. Senate, and the Constitutional Council. He must then inform the country. Owing to a constitutional revision in 2008, after the president has exercised exceptional powers for 30 days, the Constitutional Council may be called upon by the president of the National Assembly, the president of the Senate, 60 lower-house lawmakers or 60 senators to examine whether the conditions that justified implementing the exceptional powers remain. The Council then pronounces its decision to the public as quickly as possible. After the president has held exceptional powers for 60 days, the Constitutional Council examines the matter whether or not it has been formally called upon to do so.
In the history of the Fifth Republic, Article 16 has been implemented so far only once, by de Gaulle between April 23 and September 29, 1961, after the Algiers Putsch, an attempted coup d’état during the Algerian War.

The writer is a student at PU, Lahore.

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