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4-month presidential campaign with no television ads? Welcome to France

By Becky Bratu

While American presidential campaigns seem to last for years, the French campaign only lasts a few months from start to finish.

The differences between the two systems are significant. In France, candidates’ personal lives are not scrutinized to the degree that U.S. presidential hopefuls’ are and their time on radio or television is very closely monitored by a government agency. Ten staffers record and count every single minute that any one of the 10 presidential candidates is on air to ensure that every candidate receives equal time.

In France, there are no political television commercials. The only mass exposure for candidates is on network news and public affairs programs.

“In the morning, for example, which is our primetime, the biggest candidates will be more exposed,” Radio France Inter news director Jacques Monin told Rock Center Special Correspondent Ted Koppel in an interview scheduled to air Wednesday night on Rock Center.

“But we have to give this equal access to the candidates. So, we can find, we have to find other times, which can be in the afternoon, in the evening, in the night as well.”

Between April 9 and April 22, however, as the first round approaches, inspectors count not only the number of minutes, but the placement of an appearance during the broadcast day, which has to be the same for all 10 candidates.

”It is therefore very hard to strike the right balance,” Christine Kelly, the director of the agency in charge of counting, told Koppel. “The media therefore do unfortunately cancel a certain number of political broadcasts.”

With less than a week until France casts its votes in the first round, three opinion polls showed President Nicolas Sarkozy’s narrow lead over his chief rival, Socialist Francois Hollande, is steady or shrinking, and the incumbent is still expected to lose the subsequent May 6 runoff.

"He’s been trailing Hollande in the second round pretty consistently," Justin Vaïsse, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told "It’s hard to see where the reservoir of votes would come from to make him win."

While Sarkozy, a conservative, is seen as unpopular, Hollande – who was once nicknamed Mr. Jell-O by Socialist leader Arnaud Montebourg -- owes his candidacy to former International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He was the favorite to lead the Socialists to victory in France until a 32-year-old maid at a New York hotel alleged that he had sexually assaulted her after she entered his suite. More recently, Strauss-Kahn has been under investigation for his involvement in an organized prostitution ring.

Even in a sexually tolerant country such as France, that was too much.

“It was extreme. It was perceived as sickness,” French political scientist Dominique Moisi told Koppel.

Hollande’s private life, however, has not come under fire. The man who might become France's next president is living with a journalist he is not married to. He also had a relationship spanning decades with 2007 Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, with whom he had four children out of wedlock.

Another notable difference between the United States and France is voter turnout. In France, where an estimated 70 percent of eligible voters will take part in the election, the electorate is considered apathetic. A 60 percent turnout in the United States, however, is perceived as high.

Can the 'Toulouse effect' save Sarkozy from defeat in France?

While Sarkozy and Hollande are stealing most of the spotlight in the media, polls indicated far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen had strengthened her position in third place, ahead of hard left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in fourth.

“For me, the National Front is rebel. It’s punk,” a supporter who calls himself Archibold and produces political Web videos aimed at young people, told Koppel. “We’re not mainstream at all.” Archibold said he chooses to remain anonymous because some employers would not approve of far-right allegiances.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy’s campaign is relying on some techniques borrowed from across the Atlantic, such as frequent appearances by the current president’s glamorous wife Carla Bruni and American-style political rallies.

Thanks to U.S.-educated campaign directors, the Hollande campaign is getting the American treatment, too.

“We’ve been advocating for, you know, more America in the French election for two years,” Guillaume, one of Hollande’s campaign directors, told Koppel. “We’ve been pushing this, you know, ‘let’s do what Obama did’ for two years.”

As part of that new approach, Hollande’s campaign is also launching a door-to-door campaign. The approach appears to be working.

Sarkozy saw his lead for the first ballot slip to half a percentage point from two points about a week ago in a poll by Ipsos Logica, with 29 percent support to Hollande's 28.5 percent. 

The same poll showed Hollande retaining a 10-point lead in voting intentions for the May 6 runoff with 55 percent to Sarkozy's 45 percent, unchanged from a week earlier.

While the race for re-election is an uphill battle for Sarkozy, there remains a small possibility he can scrape his way to a second term in office if he wins in the first round and picks up some support from the centrist candidate's electorate, Vaïsse said.

"Frankly, apart from that scenario, it’s hard to see how he’ll be able to make it," he added.

Editor’s note: Click here to watch Ted Koppel’s full report that aired April 18 on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams. Reuters contributed to this report.