The French presidential election is just a couple of months away now. There are a number of candidates, but only four have much chance of getting into the second round of voting and therefore of being elected president. (This is a post about process, not politics.)
Those four candidates represent nearly the whole political spectrum: the left (Socialist candidate François Hollande), the center (François Bayrou), the right (incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy), and the extreme right (Marine Le Pen). To get on the ballot, each candidate has to get the "sponsorship" of at least 500 political officeholders — mayors, members of parliament, etc. — out of the 47,000 elected officials in France.
The two largest parties — those headed by Hollande and
Sarkozy — have plenty of members who hold elective office and will support their presidential candidate. The centrist candidate, Bayrou, seems to have his sponsors lined up too. But the extreme right candidate, Le Pen, is having trouble getting 500 officials to sign on the dotted line.
There is no officially sanctioned mechanism in place to help candidates for the French presidency gather the 500 signatures they need to get on the ballot. The French Constitutional Council has refused to institutionalize the process, leaving candidates to figure out how to proceed. Elected officials — 36,000 of whom are mayors of cities, towns, and villages — are not required to support a candidate, and can support only one.
Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National has been complaining recently that elected officials are reluctant to support her candidacy. She has called for the elected officials' choice of a candidate to sponsor be made an anonymous process, so that officials will be free to support the candidate of their choice without suffering political consequences.
As the system is set up, the list of mayors and other officials who have given their support to one candidate or another is published in the French government's Journal Officiel about a month before the first round of presidential voting is scheduled. There's no secret ballot for elected officials — their constituents will know who they sponsored for president.
Centrist François Bayrou said a couple of days ago that something needed to be done to help Marine Le Pen get the signatures she needs to get her name on the ballot. A presidential election from which she is excluded will violate democratic principles, he said. Bayrou and Le Pen, polls show, would get something like 12% and 17% of the vote, respectively, if the first round of voting were held today.
Bayrou's idea that the political establishment needs to do something to help Le Pen has gotten little if any support from other politicians or political parties. The current leader in the polls is Socialist François Hollande, at 30%. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, first elected president in 2007, is polling at 25% for the first round. If those percentages hold, Hollande and Sarkozy will face each other in the second round of voting — the run-off — in early May.
Who would gain from having Marine Le Pen excluded from the initial round of voting? Both the major candidates might have their reasons and motivations for keeping her out of the election.
In the 2002 presidential election, for example, the candidate of the far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine's father), ended up out-polling the Socialist candidate in the first round of voting. That left two candidates from the right of the political spectrum, Le Pen and Jacques Chirac, in the run-off election, which Chirac won with more than 80% of the vote. This year, it's unlikely, however, that Marine Le Pen will get more first-round votes than either Hollande or Sarkozy, knocking one of them out of the race.
As for President Sarkozy, without Le Pen in the race, he might pick up a good portion of her voters. They have nobody else to vote for. Of course, they could just stay home on election day. Sarkozy is not popular at this point. A lot of observers say that Sarkozy and some of his cabinet members have been campaigning hard to appeal to the Le Pen voters, hoping for their support in the second round even if Le Pen's name does get on the first-round ballot.
At this point, President Sarkozy has not even yet announced that he is a candidate. He's rumored to be ready to do so this week.
In the French political system, the President of the Republic can only be elected by a majority of the people who vote. It's not like that in the U.S., where presidents can be elected with less than 50% of the popular vote (Bill Clinton twice, George W. Bush once), and where winning more votes than your opponent is no guarantee of winning the election (ask Al Gore).
In France, if one of the candidates got more than 50% of the vote in the first round of voting in April, the election would be decided and there would be no need for a second round run-off. That's not likely to happen, and one candidate (either Sarkozy or Hollande, in all likelihood) will get more than half the vote in the second round. For now, polls show Hollande with a significant lead. Sarkozy is in real danger of becoming a one-term president.
Here's a link to an article about the latest polls, with photos of some of the candidates.