The World: A little goes a long way in the fight to lead France

Strict rules limit how much French politicians can spend on advertising in the run-up to an election. Mark Tungate reports.

Running a political communications campaign in France is tough. Just ask Bernard Bureau, the chairman of Ogilvy France, who counsels the centre-right candidate Francois Bayrou in the race for the presidency. "The rules are so strict that you can barely do anything creative," he says. "It comes down to formulating slogans and turns of phrase."

Political advertising in France is strictly regulated at election time. No funding from private enterprise. Posters are limited to head shots outside polling stations. The media must give equal time and space to every candidate. All the parties must be allowed to run exactly the same number of political broadcasts, at exactly the same length.

All this is designed to ensure that a candidate can't buy themself into the presidency by spending a fortune on advertising.

Even so, Bureau must be doing something right, because Bayrou has surged in popularity over the past few weeks and is suddenly regarded as a serious contender alongside the tough-talking right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and the elegant socialist Segolene Royal. In fact, Bayrou's rustic image (he owns a farm and is often pictured on a tractor) and liberal views appeal to voters who find themselves in a political no-man's land.

"Trust me, I'm not the figure behind Bayrou's rise," Bureau says. "An ad man can only work with the material he's given."

Bureau says he works for Bayrou, a friend of a friend, on a purely amicable, pro bono basis. "Never would I allow Ogilvy to become implicated with a single political party," he says. Which is just as well, because another Ogilvy employee - Natalie Rastoin, the managing director of Ogilvy France - advises Royal on a similar basis.

Meanwhile, various advertising types are linked with Sarkozy. They include Jean-Michel Goudard (the retired head of international for BBDO and the G of Euro RSCG), Bernard Brochand (a former chief of DDB France, now the mayor of Cannes) and Frank Tapiro (the co-president of the creative shop Hemisphere Droit). Goudard came up with Sarkozy's slogan, "Ensemble, tout devient possible" ("Together, everything is possible"). "But it was Nicolas who added the 'together'," Goudard recently told Le Figaro.

Sloganeering is a crucial element of French politics. The French advertising veteran Jacques Seguela, now the creative president of Havas, is strongly associated with the slogan "La force tranquille" ("The calm force") that RSCG devised for Francois Mitterrand before he swept to power in 1981. Seguela has made it clear that the slogan was a team effort.

One of the team was Michel Bongrand, known as "the pope of French political communications". Now in his eighties, Bongrand fought for De Gaulle in the French Resistance and became one of his advisers. The pair fell out in 1965, when Bongrand suggested that the presidential race should be conducted like an American-style ad campaign. De Gaulle responded: "I don't need an advertising campaign." Bongrand convinced a centrist candidate, Jean Lecanuet, to test his new methods. Lecanuet surged from nowhere into second place, almost - but not quite - robbing De Gaulle of the presidency.

"Today, very little is possible in terms of advertising," Bongrand says. "In fact, it's all about how you come across in the media. And it's clear that Sarkozy is the most at ease in that domain."

Nevertheless, the charismatic Royal is scoring PR points, and not only with her soignee appearance. Apparently encouraged by Rastoin, she presents herself as a "politician 2.0", with a strong grasp of technology. She has a website and engages in blog-style debates with the electorate. "Technology is a way of democratising access to culture," she has said.

While the French have regarded previous elections as a bit of a yawn, this one is being followed with passionate interest. More citizens have registered to vote than ever before, as nobody wants to see a repetition of 2002, when a low turnout allowed the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen to slip through to the second round. There's also a sense that the departure of Jacques Chirac means the reins of power are passing to a new generation.

Bongrand does not know which way the vote will go on 22 April, although he supports Royal. He offers: "About four days before the first round of voting, I'm going to provide the winning slogan."

The nation waits with bated breath.