With US newspapers currently filled with Mitt Romney and his challengers slinging it out in the Republican Primary while Obama waits in the wings, some Americans might be surprised to know that in just a few weeks from now, on April 22nd, France will also will have a presidential election.
Unlike the creaking US Electoral College system1, where nobody understands how each state’s delegates are distributed or where citizens in non-swing states don’t even bother to vote, France’s presidential election is a national poll where everyone’s voice is counted. Not only that, there are also two rounds, a first round with a plethora of candidates2 from several national parties, and a final runoff containing the two first-round candidates with the most votes.
Runoff Elections - Real Choice!
Although runoff elections seem far more modern and democratic by allowing people to vote for parties that actually represent their viewpoints, if the vote is diluted between too many candidates, sometimes extremist parties can actually make it to the second round. In 2002 the French were so lukewarm voting for traditional parties that the extreme-right party (Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen) was represented in the runoff, forcing many citizens to perform their civic duty and vote against Le Pen in the second round. Many opposition voters actually used clothespins to drop “Chirac” into the ballet box.
French voters from all parties were shocked by the 2002 runoff and are now much more careful for whom they vote in the first round, choosing more mainstream parties (called “vote utile” - pragmatic vote) to ensure an electable candidate actually makes it to the second round. Just imagine being a Democrat and having to choose between George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan! A pretty scary idea…
Meet the Candidates
The Hyper-Active President
With the French economy heading toward recession, Europe in the throes of a sovereign debt crisis, and popular fatigue with the current government, ~60% of the French have a negative opinion of President Nicolas Sarkozy. However, even with such abysmal numbers, Sarkozy is a political genius and you should never count him out. In the past he has strapped on his elevator shoes3 and hit the campaign trail, perfectly timing the peaks of his popularity. He is also an excellent debater, has unending reserves of energy and is very dangerous when cornered. Over the next few weeks, I fully expect to see many last minute TV shows about insecurity (always a rallying point for Sarkozy’s UMP party), with cars being torched by unemployed, welfare-mooching immigrants combined with documentaries about how brilliantly he has handled the banking crisis…
The Accidental President (maybe)
Traditionally, presidential candidates in France have been chosen by party insiders through opaque processes, but the Socialist Party, France’s mainstream opposition, tried to modernize their politics by holding an open primary election this year. This resulted in some lively internal debate, complete with fake smiles and barely suppressed daggers, but in the end the vote actually went off rather well, resulting in the somewhat accidental designation of François Hollande as the presidential candidate. Originally most people assumed Dominique Strauss-Kahn would be named, until he became a bit too intimate with a New York hotel maid.
François Hollande is not particularly charismatic and has little executive experience, but he is a competent administrator, knows the issues well, and, above all, he has plodded on with his campaign despite public ridicule and personal setbacks.
Family Values - Nobody Cares
Unlike puritan US politics, unless a candidate is a convicted criminal, most French voters just don’t care that much about his private life, such as being officially married or hypocritically professing some sort of profound religious belief. François Hollande has never been married, despite having had four children with his ex-partner Ségolène Royal, who was also the 2007 Socialist presidential candidate. Nicolas Sarkozy divorced his second wife while in office and has since remarried to the glamorous model/singer Carla Bruni. Ex-president François Mitterand even had an apartment in the Elysée Palace (the equivalent of the White House) devoted to housing his live-in mistress. And these examples are just off the top of my head. To summarize, France is a refreshingly secular society where politicians don’t have to pretend to have a perfect family or belong to some sanitized religious organization to get elected.
French Presidential Campaign Quirks
In the original constitution of the current French Republic, the president could serve unlimited 7-year mandates (le septennat), which resulted in consolidation of power and virtual monarchies. As a parting gift to Sarkozy from Chirac (not the best of friends), this mandate was reduced and also limited to two 5 year terms (le quinquennat) to allow greater turnover and also help align the presidential term with the general elections to the national assembly.
Concerning the actual presidential campaign, Sarkozy only recently officially declared his candidacy on February 15th. Try to compare this to American presidential campaigns with candidates throwing their hats into the ring two years ahead of time. It would be like Obama declaring in early September that he was a candidate for the November election!
Du Fair Play
With many of France’s TV and radio channels subsidized by French taxpayers, France’s audio-visual authority also keeps track of every presidential candidate’s total on-air time to ensure that everyone receives the same amount of media attention during the campaign. Political TV ads only appear at designated times, with the same time-chunks allocated to each candidate. Leading up to the election, there are also many state-sponsored live debates and documentaries featuring candidates and political talking heads.
One week before the election, the TV and media go strangely silent. This is because it is illegal to conduct political opinion polls the week before the final election. The purpose of this law is to give people time to make up their minds and limit the influence of polling and advertisements on their final decisions. Wouldn’t it be great to have a similar law in the US? Or, better yet, just ban political ads all together…
Finally, French election days always fall on a Sunday because that’s when most people are available to vote (duh!), as opposed to the mandated US election day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, instituted over 150 years ago to allow farmers to finish their harvests and not interfere with the weekly Sabbath. C’est logique!
Bon vote et bon courage!
Interested in becoming the President of France? Here is a list of all the requirements for running for president. Basically any French citizen can run if you can get 500 elected officials (mayors, representatives, etc) to sponsor your candidature. If only registering your car in the préfecture could be as easy…
And then there were ten - List and photos of the ten official candidates for president who obtained the 500 signatures before the March 16th deadline (out of 20+ initial hopefuls)
The Tower of Babel, managed by the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel. Click here to see the cumulative on-air time of all candidates
La Commission des Sondages - Here are the rules governing polling one week before the election
Presidents of France - Wikipedia article listing French presidents and all their powers
21 avril 2002 - Relive the shock of the 2002 first round presidential election results and see what happens when there are too many candidates fighting for the same slice of pie…
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- The Electoral College was designed in 1789 when communication was by horseback! [↩]
- There are currently ten candidates for president, ranging from far-left communists to anti-immigrant nationalists [↩]
- Nicolas Sarkozy is known for being one of the shortest presidents with a height of 165 cm (5′ 5″) [↩]