PARIS – Behind the four leading contenders in France's wide-open presidential race is a quirky array of smaller candidates — among them, a monarchist and a mail carrier, a Trotskyist retiree and a businessman who is auctioning off his home for campaign money.
Such lesser presidential would-bes won't win, but their presence could influence the outcome by pulling votes away from the leaders.
Polls show a tight race, with Nicolas Sarkozy of the governing right just ahead of Socialist Segolene Royal and Francois Bayrou, a lawmaker and farmer who has been siphoning support from both sides by staking out the middle ground of France's traditional left-right divide. Far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen is polling fourth.
For the "petits candidats," as the French call them, Friday is the big day. By a 6 p.m. deadline, they must have collected 500 endorsements from mayors or other elected officials to secure a spot on the official first-round ballot April 22. A run-off between the top two is set for May 6.
More than 40 people were pledging to run at one point. By now, only nine have won enough endorsements. The race for endorsements has been a scramble for those lacking big party machines and lots of elected officials already in place. The tough competition has produced some outlandish scenarios.
One Normandy mayor, Andre Garrec, said he was so tired of being "harassed" by minor candidates that he auctioned off his endorsement to the highest bidder, with proceeds going to support local clubs and a nursery school.
Candidate Rachid Nekkaz — the businessman selling his apartment for campaign money — took the mayor up on the offer, writing him a check for $2,040 on national television. Then he ripped up the endorsement to prove a point about democracy.
"I'm not willing to go to any length to be a candidate," Nekkaz said.
Another presidential hopeful, longtime journalist Nicolas Miguet, was jailed for two days and charged with fraud for allegedly sending mayors a flyer designed to trick them into mailing him an endorsement. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in prison.
Even if they somehow manage to get their names on the ballot, Nekkaz and Miguet stand little chance of influencing the vote. Neither does Yves-Marie Adeline, the royalist candidate, who has only about half the signatures he needs.
But those who might subtly shift the balance include six-time candidate Arlette Laguiller, a Trotskyist retiree who lives in state-subsidized housing. She announced Thursday that she has 500 endorsements. In 2002, she won nearly 6 percent of the first-round vote.
Another is Olivier Besancenot, a 32-year-old postman who pledges to abolish the presidency entirely if elected. He won more than 4 percent of the vote in 2002.
That year, there were a record 16 candidates, and the fragmented field impacted the race in a way that few predicted.
Laguiller, Besancenot and others pulled support away from the mainstream leftist candidate, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Jospin's weak score put firebrand Le Pen into the runoff against conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac — a national shock that still resonates strongly in today's election.
Le Pen, whose poll numbers hover around 13 percent, had a hard time getting enough endorsements this year. The names of officials who sign for candidates are made public, and many mayors said they were unwilling to face the public humiliation of supporting Le Pen, especially after the backlash against him in 2002. He announced Wednesday that he had made the cut.
The Socialist Party, meanwhile, is constantly urging voters not to cast a throwaway vote in the first round, a sign it is nervous about losing votes to fringe candidates. The party leader, Francois Hollande, even wrote to Socialist mayors asking them not to endorse anyone but a fellow Socialist.
That stance enraged many small candidates, including Jose Bove, the mustachioed sheep farmer-turned-anti-globalization protester famous for ransacking a McDonald's in 1999. Bove, who needs 27 more endorsements, has threatened to ask his supporters to snub Royal in the second round.
Then again, Bove might be his own worst enemy in the campaign. He was recently convicted for ripping up genetically modified crops, and a judge is deciding whether he will spend part of the presidential race behind bars.