French candidates disappear from screens

2012-03-28 17:27

Paris - Like most modern election races, the start of France's presidential battle was dominated by televised rallies and debates but, with four weeks to go, the candidates are disappearing from screens.

French election law obliges broadcasters to respect a strict parity in the amount of time accorded to each of the 10 candidates on the ballot for the April 22 first round of voting, regardless of their real chances.

So, with the official campaign under way, anti-capitalist revolutionary Philippe Poutou - trailing with less than 0.5% in opinion polls - enjoys as much airtime as the Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.

Centre-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is allowed a little more space if he is making a presidential statement on government or national business, but his hours-long campaign rallies are no longer carried live.

On Tuesday, no less than three channels accorded conspiracy theorist Jacques Cheminade interviews - in one of which he compared US President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler - in order to fulfil their fair-play requirement.

In February, nine broadcasting news directors signed a joint protest.

Journalistic criteria

"This situation does not exist among our European partners, which are no less democratic than France, and does not concern the press nor the internet, which are just as important news sources as broadcasters," they complained.

Several networks have complained that they are no longer able to judge items according to their usual journalistic criteria, prioritising appearances by candidates who have a chance of putting their agendas into action.

Hollande has enjoyed a clear lead in opinion polls for several months, although Sarkozy remains an able campaigner and some surveys show him drawing level as polling day nears, at least in first round voting intentions.

Once the first round hurdle is out of the way, the two frontrunners will enjoy two weeks of shared blanket television coverage including head-to-head debates. Until then, they jostle for space with the 0.5 percenters.

The candidates knew the rules, however, and some played their cards well. Sarkozy, in particular, made sure that he held his first major rallies well before the official campaign. Rolling news networks carried them live.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, candidate of a "Left Front" coalition including the Communists, held a successful televised rally in Paris' iconic Place de la Bastille just before the deadline and won a significant bump in the polls.

Protecting debate

But centrist Francois Bayrou held a major set-piece event last weekend in a bid to re-launch his flagging challenge, and was barely seen or heard outside the Zenith conference hall in Paris.

"We're covering less politics, it's totally absurd," declared Arlette Chabot, news director of private radio station Europe 1.

But not everyone agrees the rules are wrong. Social scientist Dominique Wolton argues the rule protects a debate of ideas and tests the candidates' ability to renew their message over the long-haul to polling day.

"It is mainly the 24-hour rolling news channels, who are fiercely competitive, that complain," he said. "These networks don't hesitate to broadcast footage provided by the candidates themselves."

For Wolton, the fairness rules protect the minor candidates' messages from being entirely drowned out by showmanship of the big party machines.

And events can always intrude. Last week France was shaken by a series of murders by an Islamist extremist and his subsequent death in a hail of police bullets - news that would dominate broadcasts at any time.

No maths shake-up

Sarkozy, as the still serving head of state, was able to legitimately take to the airwaves to speak on behalf of the nation at ceremonies of remembrance and to declare new security measures.

Pollsters said however that the attacks do not seem to have shaken up the electoral maths. Most voters surveyed continue to regard jobs and household spending power as the main issues, areas where Hollande is strong.

Frederic Dabi of the polling institute Ifop confirmed that the rules of the official campaign period tended to help the trailing pack reinforce their first round scores, but do not seem to reverse earlier electoral logic.

And while the television and radio exchanges might become a little muted, the political debate rages on in the press and on the internet.