Saturday, April 21, 2012

Democracy in France, Volume I

It's presidential election season here. All across France, they're handing out political tracts at open-air markets and train stations. Rickety metal billboards have been dragged out of municipal basements and set up in front of polling places in schools and gymnasiums, and the faces of a motley crew of candidates stare down from brightly-colored campaign posters. In addition to the two mainstream candidates, there are two Trotskyists, two fascists, an ecologist, a disgruntled centrist, a renegade Socialist, and a self-described left-leaning Gaullist with mad scientist tendencies.  Half want to either punish Wall Street or exit the Euro Zone or both. During the months leading up to the first round of the election, France has flirted with their ideas, giving them all at least some press coverage and television air time. If they made it onto the ballot, it was because they'd earned a minimum of signatures from mayors across the country, a wink of approval from the Fifth Republic.

What (mostly) keeps the French from storming the streets with their pitchforks like they did back in 1789 is this chance every few years to ferment rebellion from the ballot box. There's a fringe candidate for everyone: the chain-smoking university students in their anti-Capitalist phase, the working-class pensioners in their RVs, the provincial churchgoing bourgeoisie. The system works and the country remains intact because the fringe is so fragmented, and no one lunatic gets enough votes to undermine international credibility or national stability. There is, however, always the possibility that the electorate will get carried away and unleash dark forces beyond their control, as they did back in 2002 when the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round.

As an American, used to a fixed two-party system, the slow death march of the official party primaries, and the enshrined, incoherent electoral college, all this baffled me at first.

Here in France, the electoral procedure itself is startlingly simple: two rounds of voting, at two weeks interval; the top two candidates chosen in the first round make it to the second. There are no bubbles to fill in, no holes to punch, and no possibility of hanging chads: we vote by putting little slips of paper in envelopes and dropping them into big clear plastic ballot boxes.

A week before the election, a thick brown envelope arrives in the mailbox containing a copy of each  candidate's pamphlet, along with a stack of the little official slips of paper. On the front of each pamphlet there's a photo of the candidate along with their campaign slogan. François Hollande, the Socialist front runner, tells us "Change is now." Sitting president Sarkozy, who is rapidly slipping in the polls and was recently ditched by some of his former ministers, calls for "A Strong France."  Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an independent left-wing candidate, incites us to "Take Power," and Jacques Cheminade promises "A world without the City or Wall Street." Inside, the summaries of the party platforms make for fascinating reading. Except for those of the mainstream candidates, they are written by party faithful and true believers, not political spin doctors. They are unpolished. They are often laugh-out-loud ridiculous.

Cheminade, an anti-establishment candidate who defies classification, has six simple bullet points which promise (among other admirable goals) to "build a Europe of nations to combat financial feudalism," to "provide the resources to populate the world through nuclear physics," and to "take on the challenges of African development and space exploration [sic]." He goes into detail about his plans to restore Lake Chad and to harness thermonuclear fusion.

Nathalie Arthaud, one of the two Troskyist candidates, doesn't bother with bullet points. She uses two pages of dense text to make one point, that "[t]he fundamental injustice of this society is that it is those who produce, who make everything work, who live the hardest, while the rich parasites, who don't do anything useful and, on the contrary, ruin society by speculation, amass larger and larger fortunes." She helpfully highlights the most useful phrases in yellow.

You could point out that this is all just a sideshow, and you'd be mostly correct. These outlier candidates will get single-digit percentages of the vote, if that, and then they'll disappear until they're called back in another five years to play the same bit parts on the political stage. But without them, I suspect the fragile political equilibrium of this country would be in danger. Or at least the cobblestones, favored projectiles of the citizen mob, would be less well-anchored to Parisian streets.

One of the things I most appreciate about the presidential election in France is that there are no political ads on television. They are illegal here -- look, Ma, no First Amendment! -- and their absence leaves the political season mostly vitriol-free, almost light-hearted. Instead, each candidate is allotted an equal amount of screen time to present their message on the major state-owned television networks at the end of prime time. I don't watch much TV, so I unfortunately missed the campagne officielle before Wednesday night. I watched it again tonight, and with luck, I'll catch the very last edition tomorrow.

Philippe Poutou, the other Troskyist and self-proclaimed "worker candidate," stole the show on Wednesday. In his spot, he hangs out the window of a Parisian apartment building to discuss the economic crisis with a neighbor. As more windows open, another neighbor shouts up from the paved courtyard below, What about jobs? Things are tough right now. There's plenty of money, Poutou explains good-naturedly, we just have to take it from (I paraphrase here) the Capitalist pigs who are keeping it for themselves. That's the way to save the system. Someone complains about the noise, so Philippe casually invites his neighbors to his place to talk more over coffee.

Hollande and Mélenchon wove scenes of parades, of schoolchildren, tractors and factory workers, with forcefully-delivered speeches. Hollande flashed images of the Revolution, of Jean Jaurès, Mitterand and even de Gaulle as his words crescendoed with uncharacteristic passion. Hollande usually seems so... boring.  I was surprised. Sarkozy tried the same act, but it fit less well. He should try to remember that juxtaposing crowds of mad, flag-waving supporters with anti-immigration statements is kind of creepy, just a smidge reminiscent of Berlin 1933.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate, needed no flags tonight. She looked straight into the camera and explained how well she understands the plight of us French. The cost of living.  The price of gas. The dang-blasted automatic radar on the highways. The price gouging of endives.  Yes, endives.  On Wednesday she slipped at least one xenophobic message into her remarks, but tonight she talked about salad. Because of those endives, she clearly she has our best interests at heart. Vive la France!  

The first round of the election is on Sunday and once it's over, I'm afraid things will get a lot less interesting. I hope so, at any rate. Ever since the Le Pen fiasco in 2002, the French have been paying lip service to the vote utile: the "useful vote," or a vote for a mainstream candidate in the first round. How many of them are actually willing to dampen their passion and rebellion for the good of the country is hard to say, and I'll have to admit, I find neither Hollande nor Sarkozy easy to get excited about. The pollsters are legally obliged to keep mum from now until after the polls close, and I, personally, have no useful predictions.

Stayed tuned for Volume II.


A. said...

As Francis a l'etranger, we get email from the candidates. LOTS of email.

hush said...

My money is on Hollande.

You know when the French start calling a fellow Frenchman "The American," his days are numbered.