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What Campaign Finance Regulations in France Have to Teach the US


France's main opposition party founders over campaign financing regulations and offers the most compelling case in favor of Citizens United.

(AP Photo/Christian Lutz)

As France was slowly waking up following the disastrous Sunday elections for the European Parliament, which saw the extreme-right National Front plough ahead to victory, the crisis spun further out of control.

The leading opposition party, the right-wing UMP and former fief of President Nicholas Sarkozy, deposed its president Jean-Francois Copé, amid allegations of malfeasance over the way the 2012 Presidential campaign was financed.

The scandal, dubbed the Bygmalion affair, erupted in melodramatic fashion on live national television, after Copé’s chief of staff and former deputy director of Sarkozy’s campaign, Jérôme Lavrilleux, broke down in tears and admitted that fake invoices to the tune of €11 million were issued to cover up overspending by Sarkozy’s campaign. The said invoices were solicited for fictitious party meetings to be paid for by an events organizer.

  (AP Photo/Christian Lutz) Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy is embroiled in a campaign finance scandal from his failed 2012 presidential bid. (AP Photo/Christian Lutz)

Essentially, the ruckus is about France’s restrictive campaign financing laws. In what would make the Supreme Court cry foul, donations and expenditures are capped at €22.5 million per candidate and no companies are allowed to render services or finance political parties. Citizens do get some more leeway, having the right to contribute up to €4,600. On the other hand, ads on national television and radio stations are aired free of charge throughout the duration of the electoral campaign. Equal coverage?

Those figures pale in comparison to our generous and virtually limit free campaign donation system. For instance, in the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had at their disposal almost $2 billion plus an additional $375 million spent by super PACS on TV and radio ads.

Against the dismal backdrop of France’s restrictive environment, Sarkozy’s 2012 bid for the presidency ran into trouble when he hit the ceiling imposed by electoral laws, forcing his campaign to resort to unorthodox measures to cover the costs needed to persuade a nation of 65 million. In the end, he lost the presidency even though he spent 50 percent more than his opponent.

The scandal, exposed on Monday evening, sent shockwaves across France’s political class, with the far-right leader Marine Le Penn of the Front National, the big winner in the European Parliament elections, lashed out against Sarkozy and accused him of "cheating on an industrial scale."


She further added that the scandal "widens the gap between the French people and the political class." It’s not worth mentioning that Lavrilleux insisted that neither Copé nor Sarkozy had anything to do with the fake invoices and that they were not informed of his actions.

Such a case would have never been possible in the land of the Red, White and Blue – and for good reason.

In what has become one of the best-known Supreme Court decisions in the land, Citizens United (and the related Speechnow.org case), the constitutional principle of free speech requires that campaign financing should not be capped in any way. Political leaders seeking office can therefore go ahead and rally, in true free-market fashion, supporters for their cause.

So what are strict rules good for? As this French scandal shows us, apparently nothing, as political strategists always find loopholes in the system. Can money corrupt politicians? Sure it can, but cash-strapped political campaigns fare even worse and fuel voter cynicism about our political process.

With the Bygmalion affair now in full swing, the UMP finds itself beheaded, rudderless and the reputation of its leading figures tarnished. Nicholas Sarkozy, who has hinted in the past that he is looking to make a comeback in the 2017 presidential election, will have a difficult time regaining credibility. Meanwhile, the incumbent socialist President Francois Hollande has led his party to a never seen before defeat in Sunday’s elections (13 percent of votes), as his popularity plummeted to historic lows of 18 percent.

With the political class in disarray, the extreme-right National Front steams ahead as a content Marine Le Pen eyes the presidential palace.

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