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French mayors fear to back extreme candidates for president

Collecting 500 signatures should be little more than a formality, but not for Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Win enough votes to be one of two to make it to the second round, then win one more vote than your opponent. The process for being elected president of France is, on the face of it, rather simple.

Yet it comes with an additional hurdle. In order for candidates to get on the ballot, they must gather signatures from elected officials, of which there are 35,000, including MPs, regional representatives and mayors. The battle for signatures can involve supporters of the different parties driving from village to village trying to convince the local mayor to back their candidates.

Collecting 500 parrainages should be little more than a formality, but it is proving more challenging than usual for many of this year’s crop of candidates, particularly those towards the extremes of the political spectrum. The far-right leaders Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, as well as the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have all reported difficulties. Zemmour and Mélenchon’s campaigns claim to have about 400 signatures so far; Le Pen says she has up to 450.

A 2016 reform making signatures public has largely taken the blame. Before they had generally been kept secret. The knowledge that their parrainage could become public has made it more difficult to convince mayors to lend their support.

The signatures do not formally represent the endorsement of a candidate, but many mayors fear being perceived to support figures viewed as more extreme. Some may lead villages of just a few hundred people, making them open to criticism from residents who may not be mere voters but also friends and family.

[See also: Can anything save the French left?]

“This isn’t the first time this issue has come up. The prospect of potentially failing to garner the 500 signatures necessary is brought up by candidates at every election,” said Cédric Szabo, the director of the Association of Rural Mayors of France. “But no major candidate ultimately ever fails to get the support needed to be on the ballot.”

The parties of most of the leading candidates for president — including Le Pen, Zemmour, Mélenchon and the incumbent Emmanuel Macron himself — dominate the debate nationally but have a limited or non-existent organisation at the local or regional level. At the very local level, these parties are almost absent: many mayors of smaller villages have no formal political affiliation. It is, however, often easier for them to consider offering their parrainage to candidates viewed as more mainstream.

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By contrast, the centre-right Republicans and centre-left Socialists, despite having been much weakened at the last presidential and legislative elections, have been relatively resilient at the local level, which comes with advantages — including not having to worry about receiving enough signatures.

The upstart parties which dominate the national debate, from Macron’s La République En Marche to Le Pen’s National Rally, have relatively little local presence (some, such as Zemmour’s Reconquest, started in December last year, have none). Local elected representatives of the established parties have records they can use to convince voters that they should be re-elected, despite their national counterparts having been all but wiped out.

[See also: Why Macron’s war on the unvaccinated makes electoral sense]

Voters are also, in some cases, tactically backing local candidates to preserve their politics. “The more the left is weakened on a national level, the more united it becomes in municipalities such as Paris,” Rémi Féraud, the leader of the capital’s Socialist Party, said.

Ultimately, despite their protestations, all the main candidates will probably make it to the ballot. But as with regional elections last year, the saga of the 500 signatures illustrates the growing disconnect between national and local politics in France. That could come to matter in the legislative elections which will follow the presidential elections, when the victorious candidate will need to convince voters to grant them a majority in parliament to implement their agenda. Macron managed in 2017 but it may prove a difficult feat to repeat for the eventual victor.

[See also: Could Valérie Pécresse be France’s first female president?]
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