The modalities of the French presidential election were set in 1958, when General de Gaulle and Michel Debré, the main drafter of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, elaborated them. The idea was to guarantee the seriousness of potential candidates for the supreme magistracy by requiring them to obtain the support of 500 elected “sponsors.” The elected representatives were expected to bring their “presentation” (this is the official term) to a candidate, but in everyday language the expression “sponsorship” or “signature” is more commonly used.
There are many elected representatives who are asked to provide sponsorship. They are primarily deputies and senators, but also mayors and all the elected representatives sitting on the various local assemblies in France (regional councils, departmental councils, assemblies of overseas territories). The number of mandates concerned is approximately 47,000—bearing in mind that an elected official can only sponsor one candidate and only provide that candidate with one sponsorship.
The initial intuition of the fathers of the 1958 Constitution was to avoid at all costs fanciful candidacies, so as not to clutter up the debates unnecessarily, and to guarantee the sacredness of the presidential office to which General de Gaulle, as an heir to the monarchical tradition, was extremely attached. From the moment when the election of the president was made by direct universal suffrage in 1962, the sponsorships seemed to him all the more indispensable as safeguards for the solemnity of the election.
But over time, the stage of collecting sponsorships—which was supposed to be a simple administrative formality—became part of the competitive apparatus of the presidential election.
The “big candidates,” as they are sometimes called, i.e. candidates from the ruling parties, whether from the Right, Left or Centre, have no difficulty in quickly obtaining their sponsorships. They can count on both the large number of elected officials at their disposal from their own party, and their image of responsibility and respectability: being already in power, they are not ‘suspect’ and they benefit from immediate trust from potential sponsors. The question is much more difficult for the “minor candidates,” those coming from small alliances that are less regularly represented in Parliament and government, or emanating from new structures that need to prove themselves. These types of candidates are entirely at the mercy of the elected representatives, who can choose whether or not to give them their signatures.
In principle, the rule is that “sponsoring does not mean supporting.” The process was intended to allow the candidate to present himself and to confirm the seriousness of his approach, independent of his ideological alignment. In an ideal world, an elected official from the Right could sponsor a candidate from the Left, and vice versa. In practice, this is much more complicated.
Initially, the number of sponsorships required was quite low: 50 in 1958, then afterwards, 100. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing increased the number of required sponsorships to 500 in 1976. Since 2016, the process has been disrupted by the decision of Socialist President François Hollande to mandate, into specific law, that sponsorships be made public in real time, as they are validated by the Constitutional Council. The law opens the door to all kinds of mischief, as there is no longer any anonymity for the sponsors who will endure consequences at the local level. For example, mayors may no longer take the risk of supporting a candidate who is considered “sulphurous” over fears they will receive criticism from within their communities. Worse, they may be subjected to various blackmail measures—subsidies, administrative authorisations—if their sponsorship is deemed politically incorrect at the departmental or regional level. Finally, there is the question of the freedom of elected representatives to sponsor a political opponent. A crisis broke out in Marseille when an elected member of the Rassemblement National (RN) announced her support for Éric Zemmour. A whole media show followed, even though the RN was struggling to collect sponsorships on its own behalf.
These problems did not really exist before the statute of 2016, but now they have ended up distorting the course of presidential campaigns. The “minor candidates” are obliged to deploy a colossal amount of energy to obtain the precious sponsorships, to the detriment of the campaign itself: meeting voters, presenting the programme, etc. Sponsorships are collected painfully, one by one, by phone and informal meetings. The established candidates, on the other hand, do not have this kind of problem and can invest their resources and their teams on more stimulating issues.
Today, the situation is particularly critical because three candidates—who cannot be described as “minor”—risk not having all their sponsorships collected for the deadline next week of March 4th, which would de facto end their campaigns and prevent them from running in the election. These are Jean-Luc Mélenchon for La France Insoumise, Marine Le Pen for the Rassemblement National, and Éric Zemmour for the Reconquête party.
Together, these three candidates potentially represent 40% of the electorate—a true democratic scandal if they cannot run for the election. Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen come from two political formations rooted in the French political landscape and they have already been elected but remain at 370 sponsorships. Éric Zemmour, who has just launched his party, is in even more difficulty. On Sunday, February 20th, he spoke to the press about the possibility that he and his two other opponents would simply not be able to run.
The sponsorship of candidates has turned into a gigantic machine to control political life according to the demands of the ruling powers, making any renewal of public life insurmountable. The situation is all the more absurd because, conversely, a candidate like Anne Hidalgo, who is struggling to exceed 3% in the polls, has had more than a thousand sponsorships for a few days—simply because she is comfortably installed in the system. Other relatively insignificant candidates also have their sponsorships because they do not bother anyone.
Some elected officials have reacted to denounce this state of affairs. The centrist François Bayrou has proposed the creation of a “sponsorship bank” on a voluntary basis, bringing together elected representatives who wish to guarantee the execution of an undistorted democratic exercise and to support candidates in difficulty. The website notredemocratie.fr lists volunteer elected officials with a reserve of sponsorships that could be distributed among candidates currently polling at over 10%. The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, who belongs to the conservative and liberal fringe of the Les Républicains party, made a public statement to explain that he was offering his sponsorship to a political opponent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in order to send a signal that this absurd situation should be done away with. However, he did not take the risk of supporting the RN or Reconquête candidate. Had he done so, he would have been excluded from his party, which proves how ideologically tainted the political situation has become, and how the principle of free sponsorship is absolutely not respected.
In just over a week, nominations for candidates for the French presidential election will be closed. The stakes are high. Reform of the process is indispensable, both for the present and for the future. Everything is in the hands of the government—which appears more than ever to be the supreme master, the great organiser, the craftsman who has the capacity to make and unmake political life according to his own rules and goodwill, but certainly not in the interest of the French people.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).