Décision 2007: The trouble with French politics

With three days left to go before the first round of voting in the French presidential election, the leading candidates are behaving more or less as expected. Socialist Ségolène Royal remains robotically on message but has been borrowing a line from, of all people, Ronald Reagan. "Are you better off than you were five years ago?" she asks her audiences (Gaullist incumbent Jacques Chirac is finishing a five-year term). Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, continues to tack between traditional Gaullism and not-so-veiled appeals to the anti-immigrant Le Pen electorate. On Monday, he visited the grave of Charles de Gaulle himself. On Tuesday, he gave an interview stressing France and Europe's "Christian roots."

As in every recent French election, the most entertaining political figures this year are not humans, but the puppet stars of "Les Guignols de l'Info" (roughly, "The Punch and Judy News"): a short, sharp parody news show that appears every night on Canal Plus television. One recent installment featured a skateboard-riding Jean-Marie Le Pen puppet, dressed up in hip-hop costume and babbling a teen slang liberally peppered with rapper English. His message? Don't vote for Sarkozy, who represents "old-fashioned racism." Vote for him and the new, cool racism.

Yet, even as the French laugh at les guignols, the fear that Le Pen may repeat his 2002 feat of advancing into the second round of voting is very real. Some papers have reported that a poll taken in secret by the French intelligence service puts Le Pen and centrist François Bayrou in a virtual tie behind Sarkozy, with Royal in fourth place. The Sarkozy camp dismisses the rumor as a Socialist fabrication, designed to drive far-left voters back to Royal. But, with 30-40 percent of the electorate still undecided, a Le Pen surge remains a real possibility. Last week, former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard even suggested that Royal form an electoral pact with Bayrou to ensure Sarkozy's defeat (she angrily rejected the idea).


The fact that the two-round voting system might produce this result is a classic case of unintended consequences. The founders of the Fifth Republic designed it precisely to eliminate minor candidates and ensure that the winner enjoyed a true mandate. But they didn't count on voter dissatisfaction with la classe politique reaching such endemic proportions that in 2002, fully one-third of the electorate would cast first-round protest votes for extremists (Trotskyite candidates alone received no less than 10 percent).

The true irony, though, is that both the voting process and the 2002 protest votes actually have the same cause: the perennial French distrust of political parties. If France had a stable party system like the American, British, or German ones, it would not need two-round voting, because the parties themselves would do a reliable job of winnowing down the field. And, if the election had only a single round of voting, most voters would think long and hard before throwing their support to a French Ralph Nader. But, in a tradition that goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French still tend to see political parties as vaguely illegitimate--as groups that place their own particular interest above the national interest. As a result, party affiliation is weak, and party organization notoriously fragile. Even the Socialist Party, in its current incarnation, dates back only to 1969. François Bayrou's Union pour la Démocratie Français (UDF) was born in 1978. The Gaullists, in their erratic 60-year existence, have gone through a bewildering series of reinventions and acronyms (RPF, URAS, UNR, UDR, RPR, and the present UMP).

But, of course, compared with our own electoral debacle of 2000, France's 2002 election does not look particularly dysfunctional. And, if the 2002 "surprise" repeats itself, the French will almost certainly amend their constitution to prevent it from happening again. The American electoral college, on the other hand, does not seem likely to disappear anytime soon.

By David A. Bell