For some time now I have contemplated posting here on Troppo on the French elections. More than anything else, I have resisted the temptation with diligent application of laziness. Second only to laziness has been the suspicion that very few people care about the French elections. Actual interaction with people (I should try that more) suggests that in fact a lot of people are interested in the French election just enough to appreciate finding out about it but not enough to actually bother ‘following’ it as (eg) I do. So, about 100 days out, I have decided to taste the waters with an introductory post, to be followed by approximately fortnightly updates should Troppodillians express interest. I rush to add that I am no expert, just an informed lay observer. I would appreciate any corrections, clarifications or criticism.
Part I – background
A the French electoral system
I should quickly note that I am concerned here with the Presidential elections above all. This is not unreasonable reading the French papers you might wonder if there was to be a parliamentary election or not. The French president in the Fifth Republic is elected by two stages. The first stage (le premier tour) involves anyone who can gather 500 (of nearly 36,000) mayors’ signatures, and in the second (le deuxieme tour) vote two weeks later the two candidates with the most votes in the first stage run-off against each other.
Obviously that system produces many more candidates than we are used to – in the last elections there were 16.
B the parties
I have included this section because I have found it awkward to use the familiar terms of our political debate when referring to the French parties. The Economist considers there to be four main forces: neo-Gaullists, their allies in the non-Gaullist right or centre-right, the Socialists and the Communists. They dismiss Jean-Marie Le Pen as ‘ occasionally managing to get attention‘. I think that is a massive understatement he has arguably more (indirect) influence on the present election than almost anyone else. The Communists, on the other hand, are almost a faded force their three candidates in the last election only mustered 10% of the vote between them, and their decision not to go with Segolene Royal will hurt them if she wins.
Neo-Gaullists: Conservative, pro-big government, pro-agriculture, pro-‘Strong France’
The big losers thanks to Chirac’s massive unpopularity and his acolyte Prime Minister De Villepin’s striking achievement of antagonising the unions and left (making him a hero to the right) but then backing down, disappointing the right without repairing any lefty perceptions.
Centre-Right: Traditionally water-bearers for the Gaullists, the centre-right under Nicholas Sarkozy have now surplanted them most notably, he now leads the UMP, the party Chirac created to wield (Gaullist) power in parliament. They are the most reformist bloc and the least wedded to France’s twin devils: agriculture and dirigisme.
Socialists: In many ways the mainstay of French politics in the Fifth Republic since 1968, they struggled with the fall of the Soviet Union. Late in the nineties they recovered enough to gain control of parliament, the main legacy of which is the 35 hour working week. In theory they should have won the last election, but lost because they fielded too many candidates. In practice, they lost because a) the candidates they did field were mainly recycled hacks, and b) a lot of rural socialist voters, fans of big government in principle, found the idea of big government for the French and not the Arabs even better: they voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Since Royal’s emergence as the candidate it has become very hard to say what the Socialists stand for, especially since she creates a strong impression of basically hiding a lot of her actual opinions, but this will be gone into in more detail later.
Far-Right: Le Pen has been around for a long time so long that his reasonably telegenic and much more ‘cultured’ daughter, Marie, now does most of the actual running of the party. A seeming fixture in France’s political landscape, he catapulted into the spotlight in 2002 by making it to le deuxieme tour – forcing France’s sheltered elites to wonder, all too briefly, if they knew the country they lived in. In recent years he has pulled his policies slightly towards the centre he is now not so far from a anti-immigration hybrid of the worst of the Gaullists and the socialists, advocating an independent (of Europe and the US), agricultural France with lots of welfare for French people (by birth and by blood) and no immigration.
Far-Left: Whereas it is apparently revolting that Le Pen was once a Nazi, it is apparently fine that the far left are still Trotskyites and Communists. Happily, their only relevance now is making life difficult for centre-left candidates. Even more happily, Royal seems to have realised this (triggering the Parti Communiste Francais, appropriately, a collective of parties, to nominate their own ‘unity antiliberal candidate’: Marie-George Buffet). These people still spend time trying to work out what brought down the USSR, and are members of the various communist internationals and global worker conferences. The part of the far left that remains relevant is the Greens, whose candidate last time won over 5% of the vote.
Next time, I might present very brief bios on Sarkozy and Royal, and why I think each could be a good, or bad, leader of France.