First the Elysée, then Mars! Enter a rival to take on Sarkozy – and save the world

Electoral rules mean Jacques Cheminade may get equal air time on television as the President

Paris

Jacques Cheminade wants to colonise Mars. He compares Barack Obama, the US President, to Adolf Hitler, and he believes the salvation of the Western world depends on teaching choral music to three-year-olds.

From next weekend, Mr Cheminade, 70, may be going prime-time. He claims he has the 500 political endorsements he needs to become an official candidate in the French presidential elections. This would give him equal time on television and radio to President Nicolas Sarkozy and other official candidates until the first round of the elections on 22 April.

If so, the bizarre but well-meaning rules of the French electoral system could be exposed to ridicule.

The far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, credited with 18 per cent of the first-round vote, is still struggling to gather the 500 signatures of elected officials that she needs by Friday. Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin looks certain to fall short and is expected to pull the plug on his "true Gaullist", anti-Sarkozy campaign tomorrow.

Whatever their opinion of Ms Le Pen's gentler form of xenophobia, French politicians of all tendencies agree her National Front party has a democratic right to be represented in the two-round election. President Sarkozy's centre-right party has, nonetheless, been putting local politicians under pressure to deny her the endorsements she needs.

Mr Cheminade says he has already collected substantially more than 500 signatures from village mayors and other elected officials. He attributes his success to starting early; others suggest mayors would rather sign for an eccentric than face pressure from political extremists. If the signatures are verified this weekend by the Conseil Constitutionnel, he will become a fully fledged candidate a week today.

So who is Jacques Cheminade? He was born in Buenos Aires, to a French expatriate family, in 1941. He is a former French government official and has convictions for fraud and libel. He is a follower of the reclusive American political activist Lyndon LaRouche, 90, who believes, inter alia, that "the Queen of England" is an international drugs dealer. Mr Cheminade's presidential programme has straightforward ideas like "abolishing the power of big finance". It also extends to colonising Mars and "industrialising the Moon". He has compared Mr Obama's policies to those of the "early Adolf Hitler".

He will not be the only marginal candidate to make the first round ballot-paper. Two alternative flavours of Trotskyites – Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou – are also expected to gather the endorsements they need.

In a first phase, up to 9 April, the marginal candidates can be given time on late-night programmes while the "mainstream" candidates dominate prime time. In the final days before the first round, from 9 to 21 April, all news and current affairs programmes must allot equal time to all official candidates.

Radio and TV listeners and viewers may soon become unwilling experts on Mr Cheminade's plans for a "thermonuclear corridor" from the Earth to Mars, and the creation of artificial atmospheres and human colonies on Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

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