Spending rules curb campaigning on French TV

PARIS (Reuters) - Spending caps, advertising restrictions and a total ban on TV commercials have made for a visually austere French presidential race, a stark contrast to the style of campaigning seen in the United States.

Interest in politics is surging and voter registration has spiked, but it’s not because of spending on advertising. Nor have ad agencies cashed in on the campaign, despite attempts to feed off the event with election-inspired product commercials.

“The French have never accepted spending on radio or television advertising for political ends -- it has always been strictly forbidden,” said Guy Carcassonne, a professor of public law at Nanterre University.

“The rules are drastic but efficient and combined with the spending limits they make for a phenomenal difference with the United States,” he added.

French law limits presidential candidates’ campaign spending to 15.5 million euros ($20.7 million). The two candidates who advance to the second round can spend a total of 20.7 million euros. Almost all is reimbursed by the state.

Since any efforts made by independent support committees would have to be added into the capped campaign budget, candidates prefer to say thanks, but no thanks.

“With such a tight spending cap, candidates simply don’t want this type of help,” Carcassonne said.

The figures pale in comparison to the system in place across the Atlantic, where in 2004 U.S. presidential elections the two leading candidates spent some $700 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That means that while the television blitz has already begun a year and a half before U.S. presidential elections, political posters in France have only just started to spring up in approved areas -- barely three weeks before polling day.

If no candidate wins a clear majority in the April 22 first round, a run-off ballot between the top two candidates will be held on May 6.

Many expect the current rules, a legacy from the presidency of Socialist Francois Mitterrand more than two decades ago, to change or at least adapt in step with increasing use of video on the unregulated Internet.

Jacques Seguela, chief creative officer at the Havas ad agency and a former Mitterrand adman, says the current system is too restrictive and behind the times.

“France is the only democracy in the world where political advertisements are banned,” he said.

But Seguela is confident that professionals will one day be allowed to run television advertising campaigns in France, provided certain rules are set up to guarantee fairness.

“We do not want to fall into the ridiculous situation we have in America, where a candidate spends 150 million dollars to destroy his adversary,” he said.