C'est Ironique – et Démocratique: An Outsider's Guide to the French Election
- Published on Wednesday, 25 April 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
France Opens Its Polls,
If Not Its Minds
Parisians participating in a process to elect a president who, for three-fourths of them, won’t be their first choice.
Unlike most European countries, France has a popularly elected president — “popularly” in the sense of “directly by the people,” not in the sense of being ensured any shred of actual popularity. As the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, would be glad to tell you if he weren’t busy barnstorming around the country straining his tonsils and credibility in a desperate bid to get re-elected.
Yes, this is an election year. In Paris that means that every blank vertical surface is plastered with hastily pasted-up political posters:
The posters are, of course, painstakingly designed and carefully worded to convey the essence of the candidate’s position in a concise, impactful way in the hopes of swaying voters’ sympathies. But in practice they essentially serve as outdoor coloring books for infantile grownups:
An upcoming election also means thicker newspapers, more blathering heads on television, more graffiti and ever-increasing throngs of people in the street handing out brochures for the 10 candidates.
Yes, 10. Unlike the chunk of North America that I now refer to as “the old country,” France does not have a two-party political system. It has more of a room-for-one-more-party system. Politicians, including the last two presidents, who get fed up with the traditional parties simply found a new one. So by the time all the leftist, rightist, centrist and eccentrist nominees filed their papers, we ended up with 10 contenders on the ballot for the first round of voting last Sunday.
Yes, first round. With so many runners in the race, it’s essentially impossible to win a clear majority in a general election, so the top two scorers face off in a runoff two weeks later.
Now that Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande are set to duc it out for président on May 6, I thought I would finally get around to examining this year’s field of candidates. As a responsible journalist and impartial commentator, I will strive to ridicule each one equally.
Mr. Sarkozy, the incumbent, represents his own party, the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (not to be confused with the Movement for a Popular Union). His slogan for this campaign is “La France Forte,” which translates quite simply as “Strong France.” And he’s not talking about the cheese.
According to one of his brochures, he dreams of making France “strong” through a 14-point plan that includes increasing the value-added tax, reducing the bureaucracy, making sure that swimming pools have the same opening times for men and women (not a joke) and making sure that all schoolchildren eat the same meals in the school cafeterias (still not a joke).
His leaflet does not specify making sure that the children wait the same hour after eating the same lunch before all getting into the same pool at the same time, but I’m sure that point will be clarified before the second round.
Sarkozy got 27 percent of the vote and will be running against the leader of the Socialist Party, François Hollande, who had the highest first-round score with 29 percent. The term “socialist” is of course political poison in the United States, conjuring up images of unwashed, ill-shaven, tackily dressed radicals who want to confiscate everyone’s wealth and squander it on hopelessly impractical welfare programs.
But how socialist is Hollande? He’s not out to nationalize all industries and erect a statue of Eugene Debs at the Place de la Concorde, but he does want to impose a 75 percent tax on annual earnings over a million euros. His slogan is “The time for change is now.” To which he could add, “And the time to hand over all your change is coming soon.”
Running against the center-leftist Hollande and the center-rightist Sarkozy was the center-centrist François Bayrou, who would never be elected to any office in the United States because he looks disturbingly like the cretinous boss in Dilbert, especially in this photo from one of his brochures:
Like Sarkozy, he founded his own “movement” party, the Mouvement Démocrate, commonly called Modem. He made a hard drive for the presidency, doing his bit to ram home his points and defragment a broad band of the electorate, but he didn’t have enough core power to boot Sarkozy out of...
Sorry! Sorry! I couldn’t resist. Bayrou claimed to have a 70 percent approval rating, which won him 9 percent of the vote, and ran on the slogan “Nothing can resist a country united.”
Note to France’s enemies: Looks like you’ve got nothing to worry about.
One might think that a centrist stance would have great appeal in a country characterized by wide ideological divisions, but, unlike nature, France loves a vacuum – in the middle of the political spectrum. Many more people voted for the extreme left and far right candidates than for Bayrou.
Fluffing up the fringe on the right, with a relatively whopping 18 percent of the vote, we had the anti-immigration, pro-law-and-order National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who claimed to represent “the voice of the people.” Which, since she came in third, is patently untrue, but I guess it sounds better than “the voice of some of the people.”
Also out there on the horizon off the starboard bow, with a score of 1.8 percent, was Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who basically just wants France out of the euro, running on the slogan “A free France.” Now there’s a rallying cry I can rally behind – starting with a France free of right-wing extremists.
On the just-as-extreme left, Nathalie Arthaud of the Trotskyist (still not a joke) Workers’ Struggle Party ran with the stirring, inspired motto “A communist candidate.” When I first saw the posters, I thought they must have sent the rough draft to the printers by mistake, but it turns out she was trying to keep people with communist leanings (of which there are still plenty in France) from voting for the New Anticapitalist Party candidate, Philippe Poutou – who really is a worker (a machine tool repairman at a Ford plant) and whose last name really is pronounced “Poo-too” – or for Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche (“Driver’s Seat”).
Her strategy didn't quite work. Poutou got twice as many votes (1.2 percent vs. the hotsky-for-Trotsky Arthaud's 0.6) and Mélenchon out-proled them both with an anti-bank, pro-people platform that closely resembled the demands of the Occupy movement. But one thing he won’t be occupying any time soon is the Presidential Palace: he came in fourth overall, with 11 percent.
Every election needs a Green Party (just ask Al Gore), and the Gallic Greens were led this time by Eva Joly, whose motto was “Ecology for a real change.” She only got 2 percent of the vote, despite living up to her slogan by exercising an apparently magical ability to change the color of her glasses.
And lastly, every election needs a wack job. In France this year, the satirists’ best friend was Jacques Cheminade, whose Solidarity and Progress Party called for the elimination of the financial markets and the colonization of Mars (yet again, not a joke) (really).
His motto was “A world with neither the City (of London) nor Wall Street.” Yes, “world,” not “country.” How electing him president of France was going to expunge the planet of its two biggest, oldest, most powerful financial centers, neither of which happens to be located in France, remains unclear. As far as I can tell, it also remains unclear to Mr. Cheminade, and no doubt to the 0.3 percent of the electorate who, presumably in either a daze or a haze, voted for him.
Nonetheless, his TV ad ended with the solemn pronouncement that any policy other than his is like “standing on the deck of the Titanic, sailing straight toward the iceberg.” If he’s right, it looks like we’re doomed to disaster. With either Hollande or Sarkozy at the prow yelling, “Je suis le roi du monde!”
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© 2012 Paris Update