Sunday, May 06, 2007

Election night

Ca y est, we have a new president: Nicolas Sarkozy won with 53% of the vote. The French language apparently has no term for "president-elect," so the press are tripping all over themselves calling him the candidate or the new president by turns. He won't actually take over from Jacques Chirac until May 16th, but the circus has already begun: the mainstream media has given themselves permission to play paparazzi for the evening, and from the moment the results were announced have been chasing Sarkozy all over Paris.

We've been watching it all unfold live on TF1, one of the major French networks. I've been enjoying a sort of amused detachment I'm not accustomed to. In recent American presidential elections, I've been pacing my living room in front of my television with a sinking feeling in my stomach, then tossing and turning all night only to wake up to exactly the results I didn't want to hear on the radio.

Given the choice we had here in France, I just couldn't bring myself to feel strongly one way or the other. Listening to the televised debate last Wednesday just confirmed to me that both candidates, including my favorite, have as many defects as qualities. Would either live up to the huge expectations the French are placing on them? In a country where inertia and tradition are the norm and change only an unusual though often dramatic exception, discontent has built up to a point where things may finally be able to move forward. My biggest question while placing my vote was who could seize this moment: left or right, provided the ideas were mainstream enough, I was willing to take a chance. Now I'll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy the spectacle. Sarkozy just finished addressing the crowd at Place de la Concorde, and is now standing onstage among a throng of admirers drawn in equal parts from the Gaullist political elite and the who's-who of French pop culture icons. Johnny Hallyday is even there, back from his tax-sheltered exile in Switzerland.

It's all most American than back home. Even Reagan wasn't this Hollywood, and I can't help but feel that were it my country of birth rather than my country of adoption, I would be offended. If American election night ended in a rock party in front of the Washington Monument, it would disgust me. Yes, we have ballons and pop bands, but at least it's kept more or less removed from the actual seat of power. Here the show is mere meters from the Elysées, the French equivalent of the White House.

The whole thing passes regularly from foreground to background as TF1's round table of commentators chime in. Every channel has its assembly of left- and right-wing figureheads who've showed up for the occasion to spar with one another. They're as familiar to the French as journalists or football players, or perhaps more appropriately, the cast of characters in a favorite nationwide soap opera. They've known each other for years and know exactly the script they need to repeat, but despite the comraderie, you can see the strain and discord within the Socialist party. It will be interesting to see if in the next weeks or months they come apart at the seams.

Since this is France, there is everywhere an element of joyous disorganization, of emotions and opinions trumping appearances and formality. The motorcycles chasing Sarkozy's motorcade are a perfect example: each network has a bike with a driver in front, a cameraman standing in back, and they merrily careen through the streets with little respect for traffic rules, journalistic propriety and apparently their own lives in a mad dash to follow the president-elect in his victory tour of the Right Bank.

And where did he end up? At Fouquets, a famous Parisian restaurant, for a victory dinner with some celebrity friends. How else does one celebrate anything in this country but with a good meal and a bottle of Champagne?

In the US, we may pretend that democracy is some universal value that can be applied uniformly all over the world. This may be true, but I see now that democracy has as many faces as countries that practice it. France and the US are sister democracies, born at nearly the same time from the same Enlightenment thought, and yet the shared DNA has given radically different expressions.

Now it's late enough that the political figures have headed home and left the stage to the French print journalists, the European deputies, and foreign correspondants. The second-string commentators, without star power, since by now most of France has gone to bed. I'll stay up for a while, since I think it's now that things get interesting.

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