Friday, April 20, 2007

La presidentielle

Boards specially erected for elections posters in front of Strasbourg's city hall. I photographed these in particular because they're just across the street from where La Marseillaise was performed for the first time. Yay historic resonance!

Today, I became a little more French. I am now the proud owner of a French driver’s permit.* I did so for a few reasons – first, because it is a straight exchange when you have a Quebec license and it will save me from needing to bring my passport every time I want to rent a car. It should also relieve me from having to pay the two parking tickets and accumulated court fines that are attached to my Canadian license. Mark Reynolds – fugitive from justice!

In honour of this auspicious occasion, I bring you my thoughts on the French election.

Several years ago, a combination of youthful idealism, free time and desperate need for money led me to work for a certain political party for a few provincial and federal elections in Halifax.

I was pretty much at the bottom of the chain – my job, along with several dozen other mercenaries and idealists was to do what is called “push polling” on the phone. We’d read a script that would associate our candidate** with grandmothers, apple pie, puppies AND kittens (unless you’re allergic, in which our candidate really likes teddy bears).

Then we’d ask something along the lines of “do you agree with ______ that puppies, apple pie, blue skies and grandmothers are good things?” Then we’d rank them on a scale of 1 to 5 of support. A ranking of 1 meant you were with us, and would then be pestered to take a sign, a ranking of 5 meant you were confirmed for another candidate in which case we’d ask the Sisters of Mercy to pray for your soul.

The poor suckers who said they were undecided were worst off – they’d get called again and again until they gave an answer. This was not a good idea, because half the time in NS when people say they don’t know it really means “no” and they’re just being polite.

The point of all this nostalgia is that even though I was doing mindless, repetitive work, there was a feeling of energy. People talked about the campaign, the “boiler room” was always high energy, even when we all hated the work, and many of us volunteered on other parts of the campaign – putting up signs, doing door to door work, stuffing envelopes and the like. The city – especially in competitive ridings – were plastered with signs. Whole neighbourhoods would go orange, or blue or red.

This is in sharp contrast to France. Electoral rules here are extremely strict. For instance, the media is required to give every candidate – even those running with no organization and unlikely to get 2 percent of the vote – equal time. Given that there are 12 candidates running for president, that means if Sarkozy, (currently leading with 27 percent of the vote) says something worth two minutes of air time, every one of his opponents need to be given two minutes of air time in the same program.

Needless to say, that means that most of the coverage of the election tends to stay away from the specifics of any one candidates platform and focus more on generalities, like poll numbers. For instance, Radio France International’s Presidentielle coverage this morning – two days before the first round of voting - consisted of a statement from a professor who complained that no one was talking enough, or honestly about the economy. Even then, there was nothing about what any candidate was saying about the economy, just that it was insufficient and wrong anyway.

I’m not sure if election signs are covered by these rules or not, but I am blown away that there are so few. The only ones I’ve seen are on central billboards mounted for the purpose, meaning that Sarkozy, Royal (26 percent) get exactly as much space as the Trotskyites and single-issue “tear down the EU” type candidates. I’ve yet to see a single bumper sticker or sign in a private dwelling. Politics seems to be something that is practiced and regulated by the state - the people have very little to do with it.

The political discourse – and the view of politics – is also very different. In the U.S. the word “liberal” is a political slur, implying a left-ish total lack of morality. In France, “liberalisme is also a slur, but implying a right-ish embrace of free markets, globalization and big business. That all of those thing or evil is taken on face value, even by the right. Both interpretations are a bit bizarre for a Canadian who takes small “l” liberal as a compliment and equates (usually) big “L” Liberal with “government.”

Here the left is very left. Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, is an actual red-blooded socialist – not the domesticated NDP or British Labour version. Remarkably, she has a half dozen candidates even further to the left of her to worry about.

On the right you have Sarkozy, who in North American terms is about as right leaning as Paul Martin or Hilary Clinton. Further right than him you have Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man generally seen as a crypto-fascist, and yet polls at about 12 percent.

For anyone following the election might have heard of François Bayrou, the “centrist” candidate. He’s doing well – just shy of 20 percent of the vote right now, but no one likes him. Why? Well, someone in Amynah’s lab (echoed by an editorial in today’s le Monde said that it is important to have “a clear vision of society.” In other words, it’s the ideology, not the ideas, that matter. Bayrou, in promising to take the best ideas from the left and right, isn’t playing by the rules. Again, very odd for someone who comes from a country where that is exactly how any government gets in power.

In any case, predicting this one is driving the pundits nuts. Lots of people are ashamed to admit they are voting for LePen (Alsace apparently likes him, though all of his posters are heavily vandalized) and therefore claim they’re voting for Sarkozy, so his numbers might be lower than they look and LePen’s higher.

In turn, Royal has impressed no one during this campaign (she suggested France create a "Sixth Republic" - why not? Why stop at five? And how else are you going to get to the lucky seven?) , but people may abandon Bayrou for her at the last minute rather than risk the embarrassment of having LePen reach the second round again, as he did in 2002. Similarly, the other leftist candidates might bleed support to her for the same reason.

The general feeling seems to be that no one particularly feels that Royal is very impressive, or even competent, but no one likes Sarkozy either, especially as he’s been pandering to the right in order to scoop LePen’s votes (he's also considered a fiscal conservative, even though his spending pledges are, at €72 billion, only €2 billion less than the "free spending" Royal's). That’ll drive off the moderates. There is a huge number of undecideds, and no one has any idea where they’re going to go.

Despite the futitlity inherent in analyzing these numbers, I’m going to indulge in some punditry, based entirely on what I’ve read in the local papers, Amynah's lab gossip, and a random number I found here in the rear area of my pants.

Royal will win it with just over 30 percent. Sarkozy will come in second, also with about thirty. LePen will score less than 20. Bayrou will drop to about 15.

I fully expect to be completely wrong in all of that – I’ve never predicted an election accurately in my life, and being a semi-hermit hasn’t given me any particular insight. However, I’m posting my opinions here if only so people can come back here on Monday and mock me. Enjoy!

*We applied Monday. French bureaucracy is frustrating, but holy heck is it quick. When we went in on Monday, the woman at the kiosk immediately told us to come back with the proper paperwork. When we told her we had the proper paperwork, she almost fell off her ergonomically correct chair. No etranger had ever before accomplished this feat.

**and we called for candidates all over mainland Nova Scotia. Cape Breton had its own phone centre, presumably on the theory that voters there would be put off by mainlander accents trying to tell them what to do.

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