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The French are divided over the country's airtime equality law for candidates


French voters go to the polls Sunday for the first round of their presidential election. The top two vote-getters will then face each other in a runoff two weeks later. There are 12 candidates going into the first round, from incumbent President Emmanuel Macron to tiny fringe party contenders. And thanks to French election law, they all get the same amount of media airtime. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Paris.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This week, public channel France 2 held election coverage in front of a live audience. A clock kept track of each candidate's speaking time. There was Emmanuel Macron.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: And there was third-time presidential contender Nathalie Arthaud, head of the Workers' Struggle Party, one of two Trotskyists in the race.


NATHALIE ARTHAUD: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "My adversary is the capitalist class, which is blocking all progress and possibility in society," she told her interviewers. "I was so shocked how patents kept the vaccines from being given to poor countries." Arthaud explained how her plan of zero unemployment could be achieved by sharing jobs and paying for it through the profits and dividends of the richest companies.


ARTHAUD: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: When Arthaud goes a couple seconds over her time, a gong goes off.


ARTHAUD: (Speaking French).


BEARDSLEY: Gilles Finchelstein is director of the Jean-Jaures Foundation, a think tank that studies societal trends. He doesn't think France's audiovisual equality law does what it's supposed to.

GILLES FINCHELSTEIN: (Through interpreter) The paradox of the law is when we're getting closer to the election, the campaign basically disappears from TV for a simple reason. A channel cannot, for example, afford to air the campaign rally of someone like Emmanuel Macron, because if there's an hour of Macron, they have to give every other candidate an hour.


JEAN LASSALLE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Rural candidate Jean Lassalle filmed his own campaign ad this time around. The 6-foot-3 eccentric son of sheepherders from the Pyrenees has become a kind of folk hero thanks to his presidential bids. I meet art consultant Constance Perret walking through a Paris market. She thinks the on-air equality law is a good thing.

CONSTANCE PERRET: I think if we didn't have this rule, I would never listen to Nathalie Arthaud or Jean Lassalle, who is kind of crazy. But when you have to listen to them for 10 minutes in the morning and the radio, you're kind of like, OK, capitalism is going too far. I guess she has a point, or he has a point. I think it's nice. It's nice for them to have a voice.

BEARDSLEY: Perret says Lassalle may never become president, but he's highlighted important rural issues and was once voted the candidate most French people want to have a drink with. Polls show this presidential race, which will be decided on April 24, could be a rematch between Emmanuel Macron, who currently has support from 52% of voters, and right-wing standard-bearer Marine Le Pen, who has managed to improve her image, appearing more mainstream now and is closing in on Macron with 47% of voters' support, with just three weeks to go.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

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