Friday, April 13, 2007

Politics à la française

As the primaries in the US turn into a race for money, I thought I might take advantage of my perspective in faraway France to talk a little bit about how politics here are shaping up.

We're less than two weeks away from an election that ought to shake up the old French Republic

Once upon a time, there were 22 potential candidates. 22 became 12 about a month ago when each of these candidates had to get the "patronage" of elected officials around the country. Each candidate needsed 500 signatures from these "notables" in order to get on the ballot. It's a wacky setup in that it would seem to deny access to potentially popular canidates who might want to "buck the system," yet it seems to have worked this time as there are some pretty potent pickles remaining in this bunch of 12.

Of these 12 candidates who managed to get on the election day ballot, seven of them are even more left wing than say, Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader: You're looking at four radical women (all Green/Socialist/Communist candidates), seven dour men, and one José Bové, my personal favorite.

No way Bové!

The moustachioed maverick doesn't have a lot going for him: He barely managed to get his 500 signatures in time (he got his last one a few minutes before the deadline), may potentially have to sit out the election in prison (he was arrensted for destroying a wide swath of genetically modified crops in a political protest and has yet to serve his four-month sentence), and he's only pulling 5% of the vote. But he's got this yankee's support for the following reasons:
  • Promotes purely organic farming and calls for a ban on all genetically modified crops
  • Dictates that no comapny making a profit can fire an employee
  • Promises to nationalize of all major industries
  • Suggests a competition among school children to rewrite the lyrics of La Marseillaise because "when you talk about some bloody war, you're not talking about peace."
So, obviously, he has no chance, but I like his gumption, his moxie, and his certain je ne sais quoi. Oh, and the handlebar moustache is a nice touch.

Let's get real

Of course, it's coming down to Ségolene Royal (fairly socialist) and Nicolas Sarkozy (fairly conservative). The latest polls in France have Sarkozy holding a consistent four-to-five point margin over Royal, but more than a third of French voters have yet to make up their minds and more than 50% of the youth vote remains undecided. Ségolène is counting on this undecided bloc of youth voters breaking for her by a decisive margin to make up for her current deficit in the polls; pundits in France believe it's possible that's exactly what will happen. If it does, that will mean she and Sarkozy will duke it out alone in the two-person runoff scheduled for next month.

But wait, there's more

But in the last few weeks, an unknown centrist named François Bayrou has suddenly pulled up out of nowhere to near even with the big two. It's an interesting twist on an otherwise ordinary campaign because if he could somehow make it to the second round of elections, it's predicted that he would trounce either Royal or Sarkozy easily in a two-person run-off. But can he make it that far? As of last week, he is still down several points in the polls to Royal.

In talking with some of the French here, the general consensus is that Bayrou isn't exactly a standout candidate; rather, he represents the "lesser of three infectious diseases." One student explained it to me thusly: "...Entre la peste, la grippe et un gros rhume, je choisis le rhume." ("...Between the plague, the flu, and a bad cold, I choose the cold.") My guess is that his support comes from those who would conceivably vote for him to prevent either extreme (Royal on the left and Sarkozy on the right) from taking power.

A viable third-party candidate challenging the two-party establishment? We're not in Kansas, anymore.

So what?

Maybe all the cheese and wine have gone to my head, but I'm wondering if perhaps the French are on to something worth. Their electoral system, though flawed, at least ensures a wide number of candidates get their voices and opinions heard, as well as promises that each of these candidates gets equal time on any of the French public television and radio stations (which is practically all of them). The system, like most of Europe, even goes so far as to require gender equality, meaning an equal number of men and women must present themselves as candidates from each party.

The United States' mostly closed primary system keeps the fights over political doctrine behind closed doors; by the time the Democratic and Republican candidates emerge for voters' consideration, they've already become indistinguishable from each other as they race to the middle, softening their stands on practically every conceivable issue in order to suit every taste.
The French system succeeds in avoiding this; each pretender to take stands on issues they'd rather avoid as matter of distinguishing themselves from the rest: You may not like your choice, but at least you know what you're getting.

Imagine an America where communists and libertarians and greens could actually get their agendas debated without getting laughed outof the room—maybe even get a congressperson-or-two voted into office.
Right now, we've got to settle for one lone socialist senator amid a sea of Democrats and Republicans. Nothing would shake up the current political establishment more than a little friendly competition to keep the Big Guys on their toes, n'est-ce pas?

Could the French system actually work in the U.S.? Not without huge fights from both sides of the aisle. The moneyed interests who fund both Democratic and Republican candidates would suddenly they'd have to share ear-whispering time with their favoirte politicans with, ugh, the American voters. However, given the current apathy and discontentment with our terribly flawed system, there's no reason not to consider and advocate reasonable alternatives, even if they come from the home of Freedom Fries.

No comments: