The French Presidential Election: An Assessment

In the Constitution of the Fifth Republic (founded by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958), the presidency is the key-stone of French institutions. Presidential elections are dramatic moments in the country’s democratic life: the people of the Republic choses by direct universal suffrage the incarnation of its sovereignty for five years. (The term was seven years until the October 2000 constitutional revision: see US-France Analysis by Olivier Duhamel, “France’s New Five-Year Presidential Term.”)

The President of the Republic is elected by an absolute majority of votes cast. If no candidate obtains a majority on the first ballot, a second ballot is organized with the two candidates who have won the greatest number of votes in the first ballot. This two-round system avoids an election with only a relative majority and prevents third party candidates—such as Ross Perot or Ralph Nader in recent American elections—from distorting the outcome. The French believe this would weaken the bond between the nation and its supreme representative.

Any French citizen who meets certain eligibility criteria can run for president. These criteria include paying a deposit of €153,000 and getting “500 signatures”—the patronage of at least 500 elected officials (from a list of about 45,000) from 30 départements. There are some 15 official candidates in the 2002 election (see table). The final contest, however, will be a showdown between two, and only two, competitors. In this election, despite signs that the main party candidates are not inspiring voters and the somewhat unexpected popularity of the Citizens’ Movement leader Jean-Pierre Chevènement, there is little doubt that the final competitors will be conservative President Jacques Chirac and his socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. Their dominant positions have been so evident that they waited until the end of February—two months before the elections—to officially announce their candidacies.

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