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Julia Cagé, Le Prix de la démocratie

Arthur Jatteau (English translation)
Translated by Emma Barbarette, Domitilla De Luca Bossa and Amadeus Renaud
This article is a translation of:
Julia Cagé, Le prix de la démocratie
Le prix de la démocratie
Julia Cagé, Le prix de la démocratie, Paris, Fayard, 2018, 460 p., ISBN : 978-2-213-70461-6.

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Editor's notes

Review translated by Emma Barbarette (Columbia University, Barnard College) and Domitilla De Luca Bossa (Columbia University, Barnard College), Amadeus Renaud (ENS de Lyon), as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

Full text

1The issue of campaign financing regularly makes headlines, whether it is the suspected Libyan funding of Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign, the lack of transparency surrounding the donors to the young political party “En Marche,” or even the salary arrangements of the staff working on Jean-Luc Melenchon’s last presidential campaign. Rather than resorting to sensationalism, economist Julia Cagé has decided to approach the topic seriously, with the goal of scrutinizing the systems of political financing in both France and other countries. To do so, she drew up an overview of political financing in many western countries and built a vast database that consolidates statistics on campaign and political party financing from many countries spanning several years. Ultimately, the quality of her analysis relies mainly on the quality of the data she collected.

2Cagé is quick to point out the evolution of the various laws related to campaign financing, and by doing so she highlights their remarkable diversity. French campaign finance laws are distinct in their relative limitations on donations and a ban on companies from resorting to them. In this regard, according to Julia Cagé, the French system favors immobilism, as public funding depends on electoral results that only allow political change in five-year cycles. Germany has long offered public campaign funding without capping private donations. Over the past few decades in the United States, public funding has been steadily unraveled in the name of the sacrosanct right to freedom of speech. Today, it has nearly disappeared. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, regulates electoral spending but not donations. Finally, Italy has an original system of public funding wherein individual citizens can choose to allot a small portion of their taxes (2‰) to the political party of their choice.

  • 1 Euro to U.S. Dollar exchange rate as of March 11, 2020.

3Based on her data, Julia Cagé draws a strong conclusion: in all the western countries studied, the wealthiest citizens hold tremendous power in electoral financing. Where campaign financing is concerned, the situation is far from the one-vote-per-citizen ratio. France, for example, offers individuals a tax break on donations to political parties. This tax break amounts to 66% of the donation and cannot exceed 20% of an individual’s taxable income. To benefit from this break, one’s income must be taxable, which is only the case for around one in two taxable households. According to the author, these laws ultimately serve to finance the political preferences of the wealthiest citizens. Consider the case of someone with a taxable income of 100 000 € (approximately $112,639) who donates 7 500 € (approximately $8,448)1. The government will give them a tax break of 66% of the donation—4950 € ($5,575). Thus, the donation will really cost them 2 550 € ($2,872). But, if an individual earning 9 700 € ($10,926) annually—the amount above which an unmarried person’s income is taxable—had donated the same amount, they would really pay 7 500 €. Because their income is not taxable, they would not benefit from the tax break. In sum, the French system directly benefits the wealthy, whose donations are subsidized by the state. For this reason, the poorest 10% of French citizens donate an average of 0,10 € ($0.11) annually while the top 0.01% average 370 € ($417). Not only do the wealthiest donate more, but a higher proportion of them donate: of all the taxable households, only 0.79% make a donation, as opposed to 10% of those in the top 0.01%. Hence, the top 0.01% receives a tax break that amounts to that of the lower half of taxpayers. Finally, Julia Cagé notes that in France, donations to political parties amount to 50% more than public funding, which underscores their significance. Inequalities related to campaign financing emerge not only among donors but also among the donees—namely the political parties and the candidates running for elected office. If all parties benefited equally from donations, the government subsidizing the choices of the wealthy might not be such an issue. Julia Cagé’s study, however, reveals that in all of the European countries she studied, right-leaning parties receive more than left-leaning parties. Cagé finishes her analysis by showing that money has a direct impact on the odds of being elected—which highlights once again the need to reevaluate the system of campaign financing. By assessing the spending for and results of French municipal and legislative elections, Cagé demonstrates that the more a candidate spends, the more votes that candidate receives in the first rounds of elections. From there, Cagé deduces that a vote costs 6 € ($6.76) for legislative elections and 32 € ($36) for municipal elections.

4Cagé’s work not only documents the problems concerning political financing, it also proposes several solutions. Some of these seem obvious, such as capping donations and replacing the tax breaks reserved for taxpayers with tax credits available to all. In fact, it is surprising that these measures are not already in place. Cagé proposes an even more innovative remedy: “bons pour l’égalité démocratique” (BED). These “coupons” for democratic equality would allow every taxpayer to choose a party to which the Treasury would donate 7 €. BEDs would offer many advantages, including placing citizens on a level playing field with respect to democratic financing and allowing for more flexibility in public financing—currently frozen between elections—by reallocating the coupons on a yearly basis. In conclusion, Julia Cagé’s work provides a solid assessment of the issue of political financing by presenting the different systems at hand and the criticisms of them. Thanks to an approach that is both historical and comparative, Cagé’s book offers a holistic view of the subject, supported by extensive data and graphs that make the analysis more understandable and that offer various means of interpretation. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that the author often resorts to arguments that are strongly political in nature; an analysis of this quality could have done without these. This mixing of discursive types drowns out the argument, leading the author to stray unconvincingly towards unrelated subjects, such as the creation of a mixed assembly. While the importance of political financing cannot be denied, we should also mention the way in which the author restricts the notion of democracy. For instance, Cagé’s claim that “democracy is first and foremost about elections” (p. 38) should raise skepticism. In the age of the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vest protestors), such an affirmation seems reductive, even though one of the merits of the study is that it helps to explain this very phenomenon by highlighting the lack of financing for the political views of the lower class. In the end, the issue of financing democracy might well be extended to all the ways we live, talk, and debate together, starting with education and all public services in general.

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1 Euro to U.S. Dollar exchange rate as of March 11, 2020.

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Electronic reference

Arthur Jatteau (English translation), « Julia Cagé, Le Prix de la démocratie », Lectures [Online], Reviews, Online since 11 January 2021, connection on 27 February 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Arthur Jatteau (English translation)

Arthur Jatteau is an associate professor of economics and sociology at the University of Lille (Lille Centre for sociological and economic research—CLERSÉ).

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© Lectures - Toute reproduction interdite sans autorisation explicite de la rédaction / Any replication is submitted to the authorization of the editors

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