Legislation requiring equal airtime and exposure for all presidential candidates is giving French radios and TV channels a headache.
Throughout the official campaign period, which started on Monday (April 10) and runs until April 21, “smaller” candidates such as Nathalie Arthaud, of the little-known party Lutte Ouvriere (Worker’s struggle), must have exactly the same amount of airtime as frontrunners such as far-right leader Marine Le Pen and former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron.
So far, candidates were given “equitable” airtime, meaning their on-air minutes were determined by their score in the last election and by poll ratings. That gave frontrunners extra visibility in the media.
But that’s over now – strict equality is back, which means French broadcasters must give all 11 candidates in the race exactly the same airtime. And it’s not just about how much they talk – it’s also about how much they are shown on camera or how much journalists talk about them.
By strictly leveling the playing field, the temps de parole rule certainly boosts the visibility of smaller contenders polling below five percent – including for Jacques Cheminade, who wants to colonise Mars, and Jean Lassalle, a centrist who has campaigned around France on foot.
However, for years broadcasters have blasted the strict equality rule as being incredibly difficult to enforce in practice. They said it actually risked discouraging them from hosting political shows.
Lawmakers heard their point to a certain degree, cutting the amount of time it must be enforced to two weeks before the vote, down from five weeks in the previous presidential election, in 2012.
The French media regulatory body, the CSA, says the rule of strictly equal airtime is needed to encourage democratic debate and give equal chances to smaller candidates who generally have fewer resources than political heavyweights.
Supporters of the rule also argue that France’s Fifth Republic has enough requirements limiting the number of odd-ball candidates to the top election – these must be vetted by 500 elected officials and submit their application to the Constitutional Council – and if they make it that far, it’s only fair they all get the same airtime in the race.
“As soon as we get some media coverage, things change for us,” anticapitalist candidate Philippe Poutou, who is polling around two percent, said Wednesday on RMC-BFMTV.
In last week’s marathon TV debate opposing all 11 candidates, Poutou stood out with a punchline targeting Le Pen, saying the National Front leader describes herself as anti-system but is using her parliamentary immunity to avoid being grilled by French judges over allegations she misused public funds. “We don’t have workers’ immunity,” Poutou said. The video clip went viral.
However, many political editors criticise the rule for creating unnecessary constraints and effectively wasting airtime on candidates who don’t stand any serious chance of winning the election.
“Pluralism is about giving everybody a say in fair proportions, it’s not arithmetic equality,” said Frédéric Métézeau at France Inter radio. “We must make editorial, not mathematical choices.”
Critics argue the rule is all the more absurd that it doesn’t apply to newspapers, websites or social media – where a growing number of people get their news.
Whether they like it or not, French radio and TV stations must stick to the rule of strict airtime equality, and France’s audiovisual regulatory body, the CSA, is there to ensure they comply. According to Le Parisien newspaper, the regulator has entrusted about 15 people with the mammoth task of dissecting about 40 hours of political shows each day, in search of potential shortcomings.
The CSA can slap sanctions on non-compliant broadcasters: In the case of a serious breach, it can revoke their broadcasting licence. In practice, that risk is minimal – in the event of a complaint, the broadcaster will rather be urged to provide an explanation and take remedial action.