Why the French Election Matters

On May 6, Americans will understandably be more impatient to watch the 2012 Comedy Awards than to discover the winner of the second round of the French presidential elections. And this is not because now that Stephen Colbert has a Super-Pac, American politics have officially merged with comedy.

Gone are the days when things French evoked political enlightenment or philosophical audacity: “France” has become a brand-name for gourmet food, parenting etiquette and dieting advice for the fashionistas. But there is more to French culture than skinny moms and old museums: there is a tradition of political engagement so deeply rooted that even on a sunny Sunday fragrant with chestnut trees no amount of cynicism, doom, resignation, or the distractions of Spring break can deter more than 80% of them to go cast a ballot. That is what happened on April 22 for the first round of the French presidential election.

Just a few hours ago, the final and only debate between incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and presidential hopeful François Hollande was watched by some 25 million people – for a small country of 66 millions (babies included), that’s almost 40% French resident interested in the face-off.

I’m all worn out from the hashtag battle on Twitter, where 510,000 tweets were fired about #ledebat (more than 30 tweets a second). My brain was literally bombarded by thousands of thoughts and sound bites from known or unknown fellow citizens reacting live to the candidates’ own aphorisms and anaphora (they loved that tonight) back in France while I listened radio and tv streams and typed back from San Francisco. Well, it felt great (so much for the idea that social media make us feel more alone). Politics are very much alive: it’s fizzling, it’s buzzing, it’s humming.

And that’s what strikes me about the whole campaign: that in spite of the dominant mantra that we are tied by global economic and financial constraints mostly beyond the power of head of states, that there is no more leverage point and no political choice to speak of, only fiscal and budgetary ones, people think otherwise. And speak up.

There is not one, but two stories embedded within the 2012 French presidential elections: one that will be covered by American media (who’s the winner), and another that won’t. One about the result, and one about the process.

The first will have visible effects immediately: (possibly, and more and more likely) a new Head of State and political personnel, this time from the left, a renegotiation of the European treaty on Stability, and a slew of domestic policy measures, big and small, that will try to curb the current economic trends and reshuffle the social inequality cards. But it is the second story that Americans need to be aware of, if only to be energized and demand change here.

Here are a few facts about the French presidential elections that should make us pause, or dream:

1. Money does not buy the elections. Not once during the socialist party’s primaries or the presidential campaign was the ability of a candidate to raise money or not mentioned as an important factor. Not once. (well, campaign financing did came up, with allegations that Sarkozy received funds from Khaddafi in the last, 2007, campaign, and that illegal financing occurred in 1997). Remember how GOP candidates have been evaluated throughout since last year: the first question is always how much money can they channel in; or, more recently, how much money did Romney outspend his opponents. In fact, every candidate who will get more than 5% of the votes will be reimbursed his or her campaigning costs (within the limits of the law).

2. One citizen = one vote. Every vote counts, and every vote counts the same: from Paris to Perpignan to Plougastel (to San Francisco actually), my vote equals your vote equals her. No Florida or Ohio hijacking the elections, or making voters feel redundant.

3. Real political choice is energizing. With ten presidential candidates on the ballot and two rounds to vote (April 22 and May 6), there is a time to dissent and a time to rally. The first round offers real political choice; the second strong motivations to take sides. This two-step process encourages participation and political engagement. And the results give a much more detailed picture of the nation’s issues and resentments.

4. Constitutions can be changed. Or: democracies are for the people, not for theologists. It's somewhat reassuing to see that in some countries, constitutions are understood to be what they are: not quasi-God-given documents but dated, man-drafted legal documents. At least one candidate (Melenchon) and one of the socialist party’s contenders during the primaries explicitly called for a new Constitution; and both Hollande and Sarkozy envisage amendments to the current one to take into accounts new realities (Hollande to give foreigners the right to vote in municipal elections after five years of legal residency). Can we imagine any candidate in America even mentioning altering the Constitution? I’ve always been struck that a country so enamored with the idea of change would be so averse to rewrite a 200+ year constitution written in the age of slavery.

I’m not saying that French democracy is perfect, far from that. But it’s certainly alive in a way that I don’t see here in the United States on the national level—not that American voters don't have good reasons to throw the towel, since everything conspires to give the impression that voting will not matter.

Ten years ago, the Bush administration sold to its constituents the idea that Democracy could be (should be) exported—right at the time when it was in increasingly short supply here (think Patriot Act). I would be the last to argue that it could then be imported back, from France or anywhere else. A people can no more import democratic practices, laws or traditions then it can borrow someone else’s past.

But anywhere we see ordinary people actively engage in politics and think collectively, if divisively, about the kind of society they want to create, the world is tilting in the right direction.

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