Saturday, May 05, 2007

An American Perspective on French Elections.

Tomorrow night, the French will have a new president – right-wing Sarkozy is still leading in the polls and this week’s debate between the two candidates for the run-off vote on Sunday has not changed anything, other than confirming Sarkozy’s lead. In many ways, the French presidential race is similar to the American race.

Usually Americans find European politics quite complicated. This is mostly due to the multi-party systems of most European countries (including Britain to a lesser extent). It is often believed that the two-party system ensures stability, ideological clarity and a moderate choice while preventing extremism. On the other hand, it makes it unlikely for new movements to emerge and tends to magnify conservatism.

The multi-part system gives more political space to minority opinions (including extreme ones) and ensures a richer debate at the cost of confusion and instability.

But the French system is actually a mix of both – the legislative elections have all the features of a traditional multi-party system but the presidential elections is more similar to a two-party system in which the first round corresponds more or less to an American open primary and the second round is between the two candidates that had the most votes, and is exactly as in the U.S.

[The last French presidential elections in which an extreme party got its representative to the second round was an oddity.]

In the same way as in the U.S. the role played by personal image, television and the Internet is crucial. In fact, the role of the Internet was so great that it has even been suggested that “France is conducting the most modern election that the world has yet seen"

A few major differences though – the American contenders for the presidential post will spend about 16 times as much as the their French counterparts (and a substantial part of that sum comes from the state in France); the turnout in the first round was high (85% compared to 60% in the last US presidential elections, still the highest since 1968). Some in America even claim there is a lesson to learn from this:

In America, where turnout even for intense presidential elections is exceptionally low by international standards, and where there is a growing restlessness about the claustrophobic impact of archaic state election systems and the Electoral College on our democracy, there is something to be learned from the French process.

By holding elections on a two-stage schedule, France avoids many of the pitfalls of the American system. France has its Ross Perots, Ralph Naders and Pat Buchanans, and they run for the presidency. Indeed, they are given a far fairer share of attention by the media than they get in the United States. As such, the boundaries of French politics are broader, the messages of campaigns more adventurous and exciting. Perhaps that is why turnout Sunday was 85 percent.

Rarely do ideologically or personally extreme candidates make it through the first round. And, when they do, they are obliterated in the second round, as was nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002. That creates a politics that, at its best, emphasizes both the power of ideas and the importance of coalition building.
The French system, with its two candidate run-off, assures that presidents are elected with a majority of the vote — unlike Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, when Perot's independent candidacies pulled enough votes to prevent anyone from gaining a majority, and George Bush in 2000, when Nader's Green candidacy secured enough support in key states to be portrayed as warping the Electoral College result against the winner of the popular vote, Al Gore. [In fairness, the Supreme Court did more to warp the result, when it stopped the Florida recount. But in France, the fight never would have gotten to the Bush-friendly court.]

Now of course, the first round of the elections would also surprise many Americans: the candidates would rather publish books than use and none has used U.S.-style focus groups:

There was disbelief when the Americans were told that there were three Trotskyist candidates, a Communist, and an anti-globalization campaigner, and utter astonishment when they learned that all 12 candidates had been allotted the same amount of airtime during the last two weeks of campaigning: 45 minutes each. The content of television ads is also regulated: Candidates are not allowed to attack their opponents or show French symbols like the flag or the presidential palace.

As in the U.S. (outside war times) the elections will be won over domestic issues. Even though Sarkozy is perceived as pro-American (and his opponent, Ségolène has accused him of “bending knees before George Bush!" at a political rally, and more recently of mimicking "the American president's technique of compassionate conservatism"), that has not made much difference. No one seems to care.

He does not hide his admiration for the American entrepreneurial spirit and last September, he traveled to Washington and met briefly with President George Bush. Royal did not visit the U.S.

I am no fan of Sarkozy though and will probably vote for Ségolène BUT if I do so, it will be with very little enthusiasm. Here latest comment yesterday that she had "a responsibility to issue an alert over the risks ... regarding the violence and brutalities that will be triggered across the country. Everyone knows it but no one says it. It is a kind of taboo." will not help get motivated. This sort of desperate move is pretty bad.

What is probable is that if Sarkozy does get elected (the last polls are 55% to 45% in his favor), U.S.France relations will probably improve .

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