This spring’s teaching assignment at a Paris law school has provided the benefit of an extended stay in France, and a chance to observe its presidential campaign at close range.
It’s the long May Day holiday. And this coming Sunday, May 6, brings the runoff between incumbent president Nicolas Sarkosy and his Socialist opponent, François Hollande – two weeks after initial voting winnowed a field of ten candidates who covered the lunacy spectrum from right-to-left.
Partisans of the integrated, two-stage French method extol its benefits over the seemingly endless American system of separate party primaries and conventions. Meanwhile, readers having asked for my observations, I mainly keep to the process – being by nature hesitant about predictions, most especially this far off my usual turf.
Briefly, there is widespread “Sarko fatigue” at the limited accomplishments of his erratic bursts of official energy, reflected in low overall voter turnout and flight from the center parties – especially in the record-setting numbers for the far right’s third-place finisher, Marine Le Pen – whose traditional unifying endorsement for Sarkosy has not been forthcoming at this writing, and could well be a poisoned chalice in any event.
It is also the case, however, that Hollande has all the sparkle and charisma of a small-town insurance agent, with a lukewarm brand of leftist policies unlikely to resonate either on the global stage or with the anemic French economy itself.
Compared to the excruciating tedium of the Republicans primary in America, displaying its parade of the unqualified, the inconsequential and the comedic – and who can recall without cringing the embarrassments of Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry – it is hard not to be attracted to a system by which all the marginal wackos were stripped off the ballot in a single day.
And compared to the obscene amounts of American cash, time and energy dissipated across its political landscape, the tightly focused timetable in France is refreshing: monitors by law keep stopwatches on the media’s coverage of the candidates, television advertising is confined to limited blocks of evenly accessible time, and there will be one single debate between the finalists.
The campaigns do share two common and equally dispiriting characteristics – the degraded level of civility among opponents and -- probably a symmetrical consequence – the candidates’ aversion to matters of serious consequence for their respective economies and societies.
While both countries confront fragile economies, excess government spending, unsatisfactory levels of unemployment and the necessity of fundamental reforms to their revenue raising, Americans are subjected to dog-whistle appeals to scarcely concealed issues of race, class and religion – “he’s really a Muslim”… “a Mormon is not a real Christian”– while in France, the trigger phrases are equated with Vichy collaborators and anti-immigrant isolationism.
In pessimistic moments I despair of the future Franco-American conversation. Should Hollande reach office, with his proposed 75% marginal tax rate and revival of the fantasy of a 35-hour workweek, only to face Romney and his promised dismantling of government involvement in everything from medical care to college financial aid, the two will have less in common than creatures from politically different planets.
Meanwhile I did get a valuable reminder this weekend of the universal nature of the political process, at the annual meeting of our apartment building’s co-proprietaires – where we revalidated the political maxim – also abundantly on display in the two presidential campaigns -- that energy expended in debate is inverse to the gravity of the issue.
In characteristic French fashion, with ten owners represented there were usually more than a dozen views being argued, loudly and at length. And while we passed both the building’s annual budget and a huge capital investment within minutes, we wasted four hours of heated discussion over such matters of inconsequence as the shape of new lights in the foyer and the relocation of the dumpsters.
In the end, political science being scalable across democratic constituencies from apartment boards to national parties, the gaps are consistent between the fictive purity and ambition of campaign promises and the actual accomplishments in office.
So the outcome in both the United States and France will be similar – as they are in my modest Paris building – that voters will put candidates into office who will actually do the least that they must, and far less than they might.
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