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La Presidentielle

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

What The American Press Left Out

The American press' analysis of Nicolas Sarkozy's victory has so far amounted to the condescending party line about France turning its back on its stifling Socialist legacy in favor of liberal reform. But while Sarkozy campaigned on a platform of rupture, it would be premature to assume that the majority he won is made up entirely of folks committed to modernizing France and liberalizing its economy.

Sarkozy won the election for two reasons. First, by taking control of the UMP in 2005, he managed to outmaneuver and eliminate his most dangerous rival, Dominique de Villepin, early on. He then proceeded to rally the Chirac loyalists behind his candidacy with an effectiveness that surprised most observers. (I, for one, was waiting for a political assassination -- Chirac's specialty -- up until Saturday evening.) By contrast, Ségolène Royal's rivals in the Socialist Party (namely Jospin, Fabius and Strauss-Kahn) never fully came on board. At best, they supported her half-heartedly, and at times they actively sabotaged her chances, mainly out of personal ambition, but also because of the way in which she broke with tradition by bypassing the party bureaucracy and establishing an independent campaign.

Second, Sarkozy tailored specific aspects of his campaign (law & order, immigration) to appeal to the supporters of the rightwing extremist, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen's Front National (FN) is the only party in France that is considered "untouchable", that is, unfit to enter into a governing coalition, and his voters are so far out on the fringe that they are not even considered part of the "republican" tradition. The strategy reduced Le Pen's first-round showing to an anemic 10 percent (compared to the 16 percent he won in 2002), two-thirds of whom went on to vote for Sarkozy in the second round despite Le Pen's call for abstention.

Sarkozy claimed that while inviting the FN into a governing majority was unthinkable, inviting its voters back into the fold was healthy for democracy. But the dirty little secret of his victory, one that the American press seems to want to ignore at all costs, is that he owes it in large part to an anachronistic element that believes, among other things, that France should withdraw from the EU, close its borders to immigration, refuse citizenship to anyone without French "blood", and give preference in jobs and entitlements to French citizens. Hardly the kind of reforms the American press had in mind.

It's the French equivalent of the Republican Party's courtship of the evangelical vote here in the States, which might make sense in terms of electoral arithmetic, but also forces otherwise intelligent candidates to reject evolution if they want a chance of winning the nomination. Unfortunately, the French Socialist Party is a mess, at risk of imploding under the weight of too many egos and not enough power to go around. So while Sarkozy's victory has a certain pyrrhic quality to it, if he manages to put together a successful five-year term, he just might get away with the gamble.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Sarkozying Up To America

A lot has been made in the American press about Nicolas Sarkozy's "pro-American" posture during the French presidential election. But the truth is, his positions have been a lot more nuanced than either his American cheerleaders, or French critics, would like to admit.

It's true that Sarkozy is not in principle hostile to a dominant America, as was Jacques Chirac. In fact, he's made a point of stating that France, and the world, needs a strong America. So while he's expressed disapproval of American unilateralism, he's unlikely to assert French influence for the sole purpose of counterbalancing it.

It's also true that in some ways, Sarkozy's style resembles that of George W. Bush. He's a "With us or against us" type of guy who believes that French and European foreign policy should be guided by Western ideals instead of realpolitik. As such, he'll fit in nicely down on the ranch in Crawford.

But his expressed idealism notwithstanding, Sarkozy is above all a pragmatist, willing to pursue whichever approach -- French, European or multi-lateral -- is most likely to achieve results. And judging by his policy declarations during the campaign, his foreign policy will most probably be a mixed bag from an American perspective, ranging from solid alignment (China, Iran and Russia), to nuanced differences of approach (Middle East policy), to direct opposition (admitting Turkey into the EU).

There's something else to keep in mind amidst all the American euphoria over finally having a powerful friend in Paris. Jacques Chirac paid a pretty steep price in the immediate aftermath of his opposition to the Iraq War. He was ostracized and humiliated by a Bush administration at the peak of its power. And for all intents and purposes, he's been hamstrung on the international stage for the past two years by the French people's humiliating rejection of a constitutional treaty he wholeheartedly supported.

Now the situation has been dramatically reversed. Sarkozy takes office at a time when the Bush administration finds itself weakened and isolated, both at home and abroad, by failed policies and a lameduck president quacking louder with each passing day.

America is no longer in any position to pursue unpopular, unilateral approaches to strategic challenges. So if French and American policy begin to overlap to a greater degree, it will be as much because American foreign policy has become more pragmatic and less arrogant, than because of the change in French leadership.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Sunday, May 6, 2007

Election Results

The results of the French presidential election are in and, as expected, Nicolas Sarkozy won with 53% of the vote according to the earliest exit polls. I've been having some internet connectivity problems for the last couple days, so any analysis will have to wait til tomorrow evening when I get back home. Suffice it to say that there was a somber mood all day among sympathizers of the left. At the same time, Royal, along with all the spokespeople of the left (with one notable exception), focused on the parliamentary elections a month from now that will determine whether Sarkozy governs with a majority, and if so, how large. That's it for now.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Friday, May 4, 2007

Dept. Of Shameless Plugs

For anyone who'd like to see the article I was working on this week, here it is over at The American Prospect. Feel free to leave any feedback here once you've read it.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Friday, May 4, 2007

The Horserace

The French presidential election is in the homestretch, and while there were a number of developments this week, none had a significant impact on the race. The debate between the two candidates was interesting for how they both played against type than for any knockout punches landed.

Sarkozy remained calm and restrained, while Royal came out swinging from her opening statement. The highlight was an exchange where Royal either showed authentic, "healthy" anger, as she called it, or lost her cool, as Sarkozy claimed. I thought the former, but her demeanor was probably more parliamentarian than presidential, in retrospect.

Afertward, François Bayrou, the "third man", announced he would "not vote for Sarkozy", but he stopped short of an explicit endorsement of Royal. Today is the last day of campaigning, followed by a moratorium on public announcements and website updates until Sunday's voting.

All of the polls point to a Sarkozy victory, by varying margins. But the trends have held consistently for months now. So barring a last-minute bombshell, and it's hard to imagine what that could look like, Sunday evening will hold no surprises. 

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Friday, May 4, 2007

What's At Stake

I've had a chance this week to cover the French presidential election in Paris, and I can't escape the feeling that something very significant will be decided on Sunday. Regardless of who wins, the election signals the end of the post-war model of social welfare in Europe. The question now is what will replace it.

Should Royal win, it will solidify a European left built on the basis of a broader Social Democrat coalition, similar to Spain and Italy. The possibilities for working with South American counterparts such as Brazil and Chile offer the hope of a global approach to tempering the excesses of globalization.

A Sarkozy victory, on the other hand, means the likelihood of very violent social fractures. His reform program will most likely be bitterly contested, including in the streets. On a gut level, I don't think he's as dangerous as many here believe. At the same time, to the French, the American social model is a viciously individualistic, precariousness system.

More importantly, if more superficially, is the spirit of Royal's campaign: Inclusiveness, co-operation, dialogue. I've really been struck by its idealism. After six years here, some spent making the same criticisms of France and the French that Sarkozy makes, I think this election has reminded me that the ideals of social solidarity, of culture, of the things in life that can't be priced don't necessarily need to be limited to personal choice. They are valid political priorities. That's the battle the French left, for better or worse, is fighting. And I hope it's one they win.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Faceoff

Last night was the debate between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy. I'll post some thoughts on the outcome of the debate a little later (short version: probably not too decisive), but for now I thought it would be interesting to describe how the debate was organized, to give an idea of the difference in how politics is practiced here and in the States.

The two candidates were seated across a table from each other, in a television studio with two journalists seated between them. The cameras and camera operators were screened off to avoid any "red light" distractions. There was no time limit to the candidate's answers, simply a clock visible onscreen tabulating each candidate's total speaking time. If at any time one candidate's total time exceeded the other's by more than three or four minutes, the moderators steered the floor to the other until he or she had equalized. It continued for two and a half hours, that is, half an hour longer than expected.

The result was a debate in which the candidates were forced to string together real thoughts, which could in turn be freely challenged by the other. Like debates in the States, the actual usefulness was not so much in convincing anyone on the particulars of either program as in demonstrating the personalities of the two candidates. The difference being that the format here was more likely to give rise to unscripted responses and spontaneous exchanges between the two candidates.

All of which is to say that while style matters, there is no way someone unable to form a coherent sentence, much less develop a sophisticated argument (ie. George W. Bush), could ever be taken seriously as a candidate.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

May Day

The major tactical news in the French presidential election today was Jean-Marie Le Pen's announcement calling on his followers to "abstain massively" from second round voting. Many analysts had already been assuming his 11% first-round tally would go to Nicolas Sarkozy in the  second round, which I mentioned Saturday seemed premature to me. Le Pen's voters, especially the hardcore following that hasn't already defected to Sarkozy, are notoriously loyal. So this can only tighten up the race.

Something else that was clear from today's demonstrations: The common wisdom that this election will boil down to a referendum on Sarkozy, while exagerrated, is nevertheless based on a very large kernel of truth. There were anti-Sarko stickers, banners, and graffiti everywhere.

Also, while all of the unions maintained their policy of endorsing neither candidate, several of them made it clear that they were not at all enthused by Sarkozy's program, particularly his proposal to require rush hour service during any transport strike, one of the union's most potent weapons. So even if May Day is a gimme for the left (since it always falls between the two rounds during election years), this year it gave just a bit more.

Finally, Ségolène Royal held a major rally at a stadium on the outskirts of Paris, which I managed to wrangle a press pass for. I'll have more about it in an article I'm working on, but suffice it to say, the mood was impressive.

So all in all, a very good day for Royal, which I imagine puts her in pretty good position going into tomorrow's debate. She's still got to score some points, and avoid any major gaffes. But my gut feeling is that, contrary to the betting line, she's got a very strong chance of pulling this out. 

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Win-Win-Lose Scenario

By all accounts, the face-off between Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou offered no real surprises, and more closely resembled a "dialogue", as Royal described it, than a debate, as was announced. Points of convergence on social policy were readily identified and disagreements on economic policy were expressed forcefully, but without any bitterness or discord. From the start, both candidate and also-ran ruled out the possibility of an endorsement coming out of the pourparler. But although it's still unclear how many people it actually reached (the live internet feed was unable to withstand the bandwidth demand, and the only other option was a radio broadcast) the debate seemed to be a win-win-lose proposition.

Judging from the uniformly positive reaction -- even among left-leaning Socialists -- to the way in which she stood her ground on her economic platform (the most traditionally Socialist aspect of her "Presidential Pact"), Royal clearly managed to solidify her position within her own camp, which had begun to seem shaky. As for Bayrou, he reasserted both his relevancy and his independence, while still managing to give Royal's campaign a boost.

The big loser of the debate, as Socialist Party general secretary François Hollande correctly pointed out, was the "absent one": Nicolas Sarkozy. He tried to paint the familiar portrait of himself as a victim, and accused Royal and Bayrou of confusing an election that the French people had hoped to clarify. But whether or not they're true, the accusations that he tried to keep the debate from taking place reinforced all the fears of the anti-Sarkozy voting bloc and have become the narrative context of the entire episode. So while he probably didn't alienate any of his supporters, neither did he convince any of the remaining undecided voters that the softer, gentler Sarkozy on display since last Sunday night is the genuine article.

Royal took a major gamble this past week, first by reaching out to Bayrou, then by standing up to him, and it  seems to have paid off. But there's no let up this week. Tuesday is May Day (the traditional leftist May 1 demonstrations which this year have turned into a nation-wide campaign rally for Royal), followed immediately by the debate between Sarkozy and Royal. 

Also on May 1st, the extreme-right National Front's annual Joan of Arc Day counter-rally, where Jean-Marie Le Pen is expected to announce his intentions for the second-round. Most analysts already count Le Pen's first-round voters among Sarkozy's second-round total. But something tells me that's pre-mature. According to exit polls, Sarkozy already peeled off a substantial amount of Le Pen's voters in the first round. What's left are the hardcore fanatics who, regardless of any personal preference for Sarkozy, will follow Le Pen's instructions loyally. And the authoritarian extreme right candidate is far less likely than Bayrou to "liberate" his voters. Should he give the order to stay home on May 6, the tenor of the race will change dramatically.

I'll be heading up to Paris on Monday to cover the demonstrations and the rest of the campaign from there. So posting might be light, but I'll do my best to mention any important developments.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Bogeyman

Since Wednesday, the focus of the French presidential campaign has been a proposed debate between Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal and centrist non-candidate François Bayrou. At stake was the chance for Royal to win over Bayrou's first-round voters, with or without his explicit endorsement. Twice yesterday the debate was scheduled, first before a meeting with the French regional press and later on Canal+, only to be twice cancelled by the news media involved, citing France's strict "equal airtime" election rules.

Rumors and accusations of behind the scenes pressure have been swirling since, and this morning, both the Socialists and Bayrou directly accused Nicolas Sarkozy of exerting his influence to have the debate cancelled. Asked in a radio interview this morning whether he believed Canal+ had acted at Sarkozy's request, Bayrou didn't mince his words:

"I don't have proof, but I am certain," replied Mr. Bayrou...

..."Through a network of powerful financial and media interests that surround Nicolas Sarkozy, the editorial boards and networks are directly leaned upon in such a way that the news is locked up," he said, citing "numerous accounts."

"We're choosing a regressive path that challenges the elementary right of the French to be informed. Consider that Nicolas Sarkozy isn't elected yet. What will happen if he is?" he continued. [Translated from the French.]

Now there are two stories here. The first is that despite having lost the first-round runoff, François Bayrou has managed to insinuate himself into the very forefront of the second-round campaign, something that only stands to increase his legitimacy and solidify his position.

The second (and perhaps more immediately significant) is that the entire episode has given Ségolène Royal the opportunity, through both her Socialist proxies and Bayrou's complicity, to emphasize the very qualities that most opponents of Nicolas Sarkozy find most frightening, and that he himself was trying hard to soften: "His taste for intimdation and threats," as Bayrou himself put it so well.

Only yesterday it seemed like Royal would have some trouble balancing the demands of the extreme left with her need to court the center. But since a significant part of her second-round support is in fact an anti-Sarkozy vote, the sudden reappearance of "Sarko the Facho" (Fascist Sarko) is a jackpot.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sang Froid

It's becoming more and more apparent how risky and volatile Ségolène Royal's position really is. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that risk and volatility have become the organizing principles of her strategy. By extending an olive branch to François Bayrou, she hoped to force his hand into pronouncing early, rather than late, between her and Sarkozy.

What she got from Bayrou, instead, was an early non-pronouncement, one that left Bayrou with plenty of room for maneuver, and Royal with plenty of headaches. First from the extreme left, who consider an alliance with Bayrou close to betrayal. And now from elected officials within her own Socialist Party, who resent not having been consulted before the overtures were made.

Royal seems to thrive when her footing seems most precarious, something that use to frighten me about her, but that I now find fascinating. Like the general on the battlefield, oblivious to the hail of bullets raining down on every side, she continues moving forward when everyone around her is either ducking for cover or taking aim at her. 

Right now I'm not sure if she even knows how she'll work her way out of this one. One key, however, is that all the dynamism, all the movement, all the action for the past few days has been coming from her campaign, with the help of Bayrou. So while she might be up on a high-wire with no safety net, at least everyone's watching her. 

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Balancing Act

As if François Bayrou playing hard to get in the center weren't giving her enough trouble, Ségolène Royal is now facing a mini-rebellion on her left. Both the Communist Party and the League of Communist Revolutionaries, representing 6% of the first-round vote, have just strongly criticized her attempts to woo Bayrou and his centrist voters. Since Bayrou's UDF only recently broke ranks with the governing majority, they claim, it's akin to fraternizing with the enemy.

Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at the electoral math shows that Royal simply doesn't have the votes to win unless she picks up quite a bit of support from the center. She's already ruled out any modification of the "Presidential Pact" on which she ran for the first round, which will probably cost her an explicit endorsement from Bayrou. But if even working at the margins to appeal to some of his voters costs her the support of the extreme left, it's hard to see how she can get to the finish line in one piece.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

And Then There Were Three

François Bayrou just wrapped up an hour long press conference during which he announced that he would not give an endorsement for the second round, but left the door open to changing his mind by stating that he would take into consideration any evolution in either of the other two candidates' positions between now and May 6. He also announced the formation of a new political party, tentatively named the Democrat Party, with which he intended to run parliamentary candidates in every legislative district, thereby ruling out for the time being any notion of joining a formal governing alliance with either candidate.

In "liberating" his voters, Bayrou made mention of his political principles, but also of his misgivings with both Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal. Of the two, the portrait he drew of the former was by far the less flattering, describing Sarkozy's close contacts in media and finance as a menace to democracy, and his "taste for intimidation and threats" as a risk for the already fraying social fabric. Of Royal, he expressed more comfort with her social policies and governing style, but repeatedly underlined their differences in economic policy. He later referred to his "sharp" (ie. personal) misgivings over Sarkozy, compared to his "chronic" (ie. policy) misgivings over Royal.

When asked if he had made a personal decision as to who he would vote for, Bayrou cleverly responded that he had a pretty clear idea of what he would not do, but was not yet sure what he would do, a formulation he referred back to later with the added remark that a moment of reflection ought to make clear what he was trying to convey.

My reading of his remarks is that he's very clearly closing the door on any possible alliance with Sarkozy, whereas he would entertain a semi-autonomous coalition with Royal based on how much she was willing to modify her economic platform. He accepted her invitation to debate their respective programs, and expressed an openness to do the same with Sarkozy should he extend an invitation.

So while both Sarkozy and Royal expressed pleasure last Sunday to find the race clarified into a classic right-left faceoff, Bayrou made it clear that he has no intention of going anywhere. To the contrary, with his new party and repeated assertion that the results of this past Sunday confirmed the arrival of a third political force, he seems to have every intention of sticking around.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Fight For The Center Heats Up

With the second round of the French presidential election hinging on who grabs François Bayrou's first-round voters, both Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy have basically taken off the gloves to capture them.

After correctly resisting, before the first round, any suggestion of an eventual governing coalition with Bayrou's center-right UDF party, Royal was more open to the idea today. When asked whether, in the event of Bayrou's support, she would name members of the UDF as members of her government, she responded, "Of course, that's what a presidential majority means." [Translated from the French.]

Sarkozy, unsurprisingly, has chosen another, more violent approach. Having already picked off a number of UDF heavyweights unhappy with Bayrou's veer towards the left before the first round, Sarkozy today picked up the endorsement of the UDF mayor of Rouen, the largest city governed by the UDF. And while ruling out the idea of taking over the UDF from the inside with the help of disgruntled old-timers due to the party's protective governing regulations, he floated the idea of creating a new center-right party, independent of his own UMP, but still part of the governing majority. Which would effectively serve as a refuge for right-of-center UDF members who are uncomfortable with the party's new social democrat identity but hesitant to join the Gaullist UMP.

The calculus behind both candidates' moves is clear. A month after the Presidential election, France will vote again, this time for parliamentary elections. And one of the consequences of a governing coalition is a parliamentary ceasefire among the coalition parties. So, for instance, in 2002, the UMP didn't field a candidate in any district held by the much weaker UDF. Royal didn't go so far as to offer Bayrou the same deal, which is why she used the phrase "presidential majority" as opposed to "governing majority". But she didn't rule it out, either. Sarkozy's comments, on the other hand, were a clear ultimatum, both to Bayrou and any UDF parliamentarian who doesn't want to see a UMP challenge to his seat.

In the meantime, Bayrou has announced a press conference for tomorrow to discuss his views of the two candidates. It seems a little early for him to make any pronouncement, given what's been put on the table so far. But the campaigns are working overtime right now, so a deal could already be in the works. My hunch is he's playing now for the 2012 presidential election. And as much as his campaign was based on independence, five more years in the wilderness won't position him very well for it. And five years as Sarkozy's lap dog wouldn't be any better. So I wouldn't be surprised if he takes Royal's best offer and describes it as the government of national unity he was calling for two weeks ago.

One thing's for sure: The next two weeks are going to be very, very entertaining.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Setting The Scene

Just taking a quick glance at today's TNS/Sofres poll [note: French language] for the French presidential election, and if one thing seems pretty clear it's that the immediate calculations made after the first round seem to be born out by the poll results. I had some questions whether Jean-Marie Le Pen's voters (of which only the hardcore remained) could be won over, but apparently 62% of them solidly intend to vote for Sarkozy in the second round. (Surprisingly, Ségolène Royal stands to pick up 22% of them, probably out of spite towards Sarkozy for having "Le Pen-ized" his campaign.) Another interesting result: Royal wins the Bayrou voters, 46-25%, with 29% expressing no intention.

Now, neither Le Pen nor Bayrou has made any endorsements for the second round, so both of these numbers could change. Le Pen plans to make a statement on May 1st, at the FN's annual Joan of Arc Festival; Bayrou has refused to tip his hand in spite of both candidates actively courting his electorate, if not necessarily him. My hunch is that neither will make an endorsement of a candidate. What remains to be seen is whether they will "free" their voters, or call for "une vote blanche", ie. a blank ballot, which is functionally equivalent to an abstention.

Two other interesting, if not surprising, results. First, of those who have already decided to vote for Royal, 54% will do so out of opposition to Sarkozy rather than support for Royal, bearing out the theory of an "anti-Sarko" vote. And second, 17% of those questioned have not yet firmly decided for whom they will vote. Which means that at 51-49% in Sarkozy's favor, nothing is yet decided.

I don't plan to follow the polls that closely, but it is interesting to see that all the conventional wisdoms seem to be holding up.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Barack & Bayrou

A few months ago I was struck by the parallels between the political arc of Barack Obama and Ségolène Royal, the French Socialist candidate for President. Both were relative unknowns a short while ago. Both capitalized on personal charisma and dissatisfaction with familiar faces to rise quickly in public opinion polls. And both emphasized governing philosophy while remaining vague about policy details.

But I'm struck now by the parallels between Obama and François Bayrou, the French centrist candidate. Like Bayrou, Obama emphasizes consensus and bi-partisanship. Like Bayrou, Obama is both a "fresh face" and a party insider. And like Bayrou, he's been accused of being out of step with voters' polarized, militant mood.

There's no doubting that Obama is a true Democrat, yet he insists on running on a platform of conciliation and consensus. The question he, like Bayrou, seems to be posing comes down to, "Can't we all just get along?" In France, the answer was, "Not yet." I wonder what America will respond.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   Politics   

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Coming Up For Air

Some quick thoughts about the run-off round of the French presidential election, which saw an astonishing 85% of voters participating. First of all, the tension and anticipation here were palpable for the week leading up to the voting. The political calculations were complex, especially for voters situated on the center-left without a strong party identification. And it's not certain the Socialist Party would have survived another first-round defeat, so the stakes were high.

As for the numbers, while both Sarkozy's (30%) and Royal's (25%) tallies seem impressive given the first-round results in 2002, a number of factors contributed to boosting them artificially. For Sarkozy, the fact that all the minor right-of-center parties merged for the 2002 legislative elections, and for Royal the urgency felt on the left to vote for a candidate who had a real chance of winning. (Which didn't prevent the parties on the extreme left from garnering 10% of the vote.)

The major surprises of the election, ones which could possibly change the landscape of French electoral politics, were the strength of François Bayrou's showing and the weakness of Jean-Marie Le Pen's.

Bayrou is clearly the big winner of the first round, despite finishing third with 19%. One reporter described him as serene and contented, while another joked that he would surely be the most sought-after man in France during the next two weeks. A quick glance at the electoral calculus is all it takes to know why. Neither Royal nor Sarkozy has a solid majority, even with votes recuperated from the other parties. Which means that Bayrou holds the key to the second round.

The preliminary exit polls described his voters as evenly split between traditionally left and traditionally right. And it's not at all clear how loyal they are, given that his emergence as a political force is a recent phenomenon. But the first round clearly left Bayrou in an apparent position of strength. If his support holds through the second round, and he capitalizes on it to create a coalition government, the traditional right-left split that has held in French politics since Mitterand's victory in 1981 will for all intents and purposes be finished.

Le Pen, on the other hand, ends his political career with his worst showing in years. Exit polling confirmed what many had suspected: that Sarkozy had cherry-picked some of his voters from the "unhappy France", almost a third of Le Pen's 2002 tally. Unfortunately for Sarkozy, this leaves only the hardcore Le Pen followers on the right, voters he will have trouble converting for the second round.

As for those who already made the leap, there are two possibilities. Either Sarkozy integrates their concerns into the governing party's political agenda, which means a real shift to the right and a hardening of the right-left cleavage in French politics. Or else he veers to the center for Bayrou's votes, leaving him vulnerable to Le Pen's successor on the right.

In any event, the stress and uncertainty of the first round is over. Which, of course, means that the stress and uncertainty of the second round has just begun.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bayrou & Europe

I remember the tangible feeling, when I moved to France in 2001, of bearing witness to the birth of something new and exciting, something that doesn't come along very often: a new identity. A European identity.

Two events brought it home. The first was the passage to the Euro, when half a continent, transformed into tourists without having left home, discovered a new and common currency, examining each bill for the first time, double checking coins at the cash register, and doing hurried mental conversions to get a sense of how much they'd just spent.

The second was the film, "L'Auberge Espagnol", which told the story of a young French exchange student's year abroad in Madrid, and how, through the friendships he forms with his roommates, all, like him, adrift and far from home, they arrive at a common language to define themselves. And it occured to me, in a way that was somehow very moving, that these twenty-somethings might be the first generation to really think of themselves, not just as French or English or Spanish or German, but as European...

Read the full post>>

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Toeing The Party Line

I promised a bunch of background on the French presidential election, and I realize now that guilt over my failure to do so has kept me from even posting on some of the developments going on. So I'm just going to start giving updates, and hope that people care.

The big news of the campaign here has been Ségolène Royal's recent slippage in the polls, due in part to a series of media-stoked gaffes, but also because she had committed herself to a listening period made up of small regional town hall-type meetings, as well as online forums, to integrate the concerns of the French electorate into her campaign program.

Despite taking a beating for running what was called a policy-free campaign based on charisma and popularity polls (remind you of anyone?), she stuck to her guns, arguing that to cave in on her promise to the French people would be a sign of weakness.

Well, yesterday marked the end of the listening period and the big rollout of a program. And consensus seems to be that two months of direct consultations with the French electorate have produced a 100-point plan that bears a strong resemblance to the Socialist party's electoral platform, completed... last year. As the BBC puts it:

Thus her call for a rise in the monthly minumum wage to 1,500 euros (£1,000; $1,952) in the course of the next legislature is straight out of the PS programme, as is the proposal to increase low pensions by 5%.

It was a party idea to build 120,000 social housing units a year, to place a rental ceiling for low-income families at 25% of monthly revenue, and to punish councils that do not build their legal quota of public accommodation.

Reducing the country's reliance on nuclear power by increasing renewable energy sources to 20% of needs by 2020 is also a Socialist measure, as is the idea to provide free out-of-class coaching to all schoolchildren.

In other words, after flirting for the past few months with a Third Way-type centrism that rankled some of the party apparatchik, Ségo has largely re-positioned herself as a true Socialist candidate in order to mobilize the base for the first round of elections.

Now everyone will have their eyes glued on the poll numbers to see what impact it has on the campaign. My prediction? If she doesn't turn things around in the next two weeks, look for one of "the elephants", as the old-time party bigshots are known here, to launch an independent campaign bid. Specifically Laurent Fabius, a former Prime Minister under Mitterand, who had no qualms bucking the party line to oppose the constitutional referendum in 2005.

As I put it in a comment on another blog, politics isn't just a game here. It's a blood sport.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Thursday, February 1, 2007

The French Election: Who Cares?

In case you're wondering why the French election matters for America, it boils down to the kind of multi-lateral coalitions we'll need to build if we're going to start re-stabilizing the Middle East. France probably has more credibility among the Arab states, and especially the Arab street, than any Western power, mainly because it is (accurately) perceived as not having a pro-Israel bias. Its refusal to endorse the Iraq War only enhanced that reputation. And while relations have been complicated and sometimes strained in the post-colonial era, you can't underestimate the influence and savoir faire that comes from upwards of a century of colonial rule.

As a result, France will be essential to any resolution of the crisis in Lebanon, and their involvement in the Quartet will legitimize the kinds of pressure that can be brought to bear on the Israelis and Palestinians to get back to serious negotiations. As for Iraq, don't be surprised if the English begin to feel some serious war fatigue in the near future, especially if America continues trying to provoke a shooting war with Iran. Which means that we might soon be essentially going it alone over there. Depending on how much humble pie we're willing to eat, and how many oil contracts we're willing to part with, introducing a French diplomatic role could add some legitimacy and dynamism to any endgame dealmaking.

So with that in mind, how do the candidates stack up? Sarkozy is the closest to a hardliner. He's a law & order type who strongly supports the War on Terror. He criticicized French "obstructionism" during the run-up to the Iraq War, although he's since modulated his position. And he's the most openly pro-American, and pro-Israeli, of the candidates.

Ségolène Royal's foreign policy stance is more strongly rooted in a European vision. She's described the invasion of Iraq as a catastrophe, but in doing so, made a point of distinguishing between the Bush administration and the United States. She's called for the restoration of European aid to the Palestinian Authority under Hamas, and was a vocal critic of America and Israel during the aerial bombardment of Southern Lebanon. At the same time, she's a firm opponent of a nuclear Iran, going so far as to call even a civilian capability unacceptable. Her foreign policy footing is perhaps less sure than that of her opponents, but she's far from a pushover.

Finally among the major candidates, there's François Bayrou. He, too, is a deeply rooted European, who advocates a unified EU foreign policy. He was firmly opposed to the Iraq War, although his reasoning had as much to do with the precedent it set for dealing with rogue states in general as it did with the Iraq dossier in particular. His position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nuanced and balanced. And he's opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran, while accepting a civilian capability.

Assuming that American policy eventually shifts back in line with American and world opinion, I think that either Royal or Bayrou would, on paper, be the best partner for working towards peace and stability in the region. Still there's something about Sarkozy's dynamism that I find appealing. And despite his reputation for being provocative and reckless, he's known as an effective negotiator. If he does end up being a voice of moderation, his opinion might carry more weight with America and Israel, coming from a friend, than the same opinion coming from Royal or Bayrou.

Tomorrow: some of the issues on the French domestic scene that are driving the campaign.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   La Presidentielle   

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sarkozy On Charlie Rose

Apparently Nicolas Sarkozy will be tonight's guest on the Charlie Rose Show. Definitely take a look if you get a chance. He's an articulate and charismatic speaker, always good for a memorable soundbite. Don't believe me? How about this:

His most colorful comments concerned Turkey, whose entry into the European Union he opposes. Sarkozy insisted that Turkey was in Asia Minor, not Europe, interjecting: "Excuse me, but is Mexico part of the United States?" He added that Turkey's refusal to accept Cyprus as an EU member would be like a country's seeking to become part of the United States but saying, "Let's do away with California first."

This guy might very well end up being the next French President.  And I have a hunch that we'll be turning to the French more and more in the coming years to help repair some of the damage we've done in the Middle East. So he's definitely worth watching.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Politics, French Style

If I had to choose one thing to illustrate the difference between American and French political culture, it would be the absence in France of tabloid news as we know it in the States. No shouting matches on Fox News. No caricatural headlines on the front cover of the NY Post. That kind of coverage doesn't exist here, because that kind of politics doesn't exist here. Politicians are judged for and take pride in their debating skills, so talking points are unheard of. Questions are for the most part answered, not redirected. Issues are addressed.

This concern for preserving the sanctity of the political arena is reflected in the laws governing the election, which are designed to both minimize the advantages that accrue to major-party candidates and encourage healthy political discourse. Take campaign financing, for example. There's a strict ceiling on campaign spending, 50% of which is reimbursed by the state for anyone who gets more than 5% of the vote in the first round of elections, with a fixed amount for those that don't. Corporations and legal entities other than private individuals are forbidden from making campaign contributions. And commercial advertising isn't allowed.

Equality of media access is guaranteed, which means more than just evenhanded news coverage. Every night leading up to the election, a different candidate is interviewed for 10 minutes following the prime time evening news, with the order of appearances determined randomly. So by the time people vote, they've heard each candidate a couple of times discussing at length and in depth the various issues confronting the country.

The only requirements for appearing on the ballot are the eligibility to vote and hold office, and the signatures of 500 locally elected officials (not necessarily endorsements), allowing a host of minor political parties and radical candidates to be represented. (Consider that in 2002, there were sixteen candidates in the first round, which contributed to the splintering of the left's vote and allowed Le Pen to slip into the second round.)

So much for the playing field. Now how about the teams? To most American observers, the most striking feature of the French political landscape is the degree to which it's skewed to the left. The Communist Party still holds seats in the National Assembly. The Trotskyite party known as the League of Communist Revolutionaries is not only taken seriously, its candidate in 2002, a 28-year old mailman named Olivier Besancenot, won over 4% of the vote in the first round. (In all fairness, he's extremely articulate and a skilled debater.) Another Trotskyite named Arlette Laguiller, who has run in every presidential election since 1974 under the banner of the Worker's Struggle party, won 5%. In fact, if you add up the vote total of the various extreme leftwing parties, you end up with roughly 18% of the first-round vote. Throw in the Greens' 5% and you're looking at almost a quarter of the French electorate comfortably to the left of Dennis Kucinich.

But with the exception of François Mitterand in 1981 and 1988, no Socialist candidate has been able to garner the support of the French radical left, and Ségolène Royal won't be any exception. There's been some talk about a unified radical candidate for this year's election, but with the exception of Arlette, who's running again, there hasn't been any announcements. After the debacle of 2002, though, it's unlikely that people will be as frivolous with their first-round votes this time around.

Next up, a rundown of some of the issues on people's minds, the candidates' programs, and why Americans should care.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Monday, January 29, 2007

The Third Man

My longshot bet to win the French presidential election, François Bayrou, has been making up ground in the aftermath of Ségolène Royal's choppy campaign debut. According to the latest polls, he's now climbed into third place with 14% of likely voters. While he still trails Sarkozy and Royal by a significant margin (Sarko 31%, Royal 29%), he's trending upwards. Most importantly, he's overtaken Jean Marie Le Pen, the ultra-nationalist right-wing candidate who traumatised the country by sneaking into the second round of balloting in 2002. (In France, anyone who collects signatures from 500 French mayors can appear on the ballot. The top two vote-getters from the first round face off in the second round two weeks later.)

In a country traditionally torn by right-left cleavages, Bayrou has steered his party, the centrist UDF, clear of entangling alliances with either. The advantage? People are genuinely tired of politics as usual, and are looking for a valid alternative. The disadvantage? French culture is instinctively conflictual, especially the political culture. People here are naturally distrustful of someone who won't come down on one side of an issue or the other. So while Bayrou's stock is beginning to rise with voters, he's already suffered some defections within his own party, where dissatisfaction with the UDF's refusal to participate in the right-of-center UMP government caused a number of Assembly-members to jump ship and endorse Sarkozy. It doesn't help that Bayrou is widely considered to "have the charisma of a coffee table."

Something tells me, though, that this campaign has still got some surprises left. To begin with, Sarkozy, while solidly backed by the governing UMP, is thoroughly detested by Chirac and his loyalists. There's also the question of Chirac's lingering legal worries from his days as mayor of Paris catching up to him as soon as his Presidential immunity comes to an end. So unless a backroom deal is struck to make those worries disappear, there's no guarantee that Chirac, whose known as "The Serial Killer" for all the political rivals he's left for dead, won't run one of his cronies to split the rightwing vote.

As for Royal, unless she recovers soon and strongly, one of her defeated rivals from within the Socialist Party (I'm counting on former Mitterand-era Prime Minister Laurent Fabius) might very well announce an independent run, effectively splitting the Socialist vote and putting Bayrou very much in the running.

I'll have more on the candidates' platforms, as well as some differences between the American and French political cultures and why any of this matters in the next few days.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Royal Pain

I mentioned I'd be trying to slip in some posts on the French presidential campaign, and while I was hoping to do a few backgrounders since coverage of foreign elections is pretty spotty in the States, things have heated up in the last few days.

A French impersonator named Gérard Dahan is known here for his telephone hoaxes. He once placed a call to Zinedine Zidane as President Jaques Chirac, and famously got Zizou and the entire French national team to place their hands over their hearts for the pre-game Marseillaise (an unusual gesture here in France).

Well, this week he got Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal to believe she was speaking to the Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest. And in the course of their conversation, Dahan/Charest compared Royal's recent controversial remarks in support of Quebec independence to a Canadian saying Corsica should be independent. To which Royal responded, "The French wouldn't disagree, by the way." Before breaking into laughter and adding, "Don't repeat that. That one there would cause an uproar in France. Keep it a secret." Little did she know.

To put it in context, Corsican nationalists have been engaged in a decades-long campaign to secure independence from France, a campaign that has included bombings of governmental buildings and assassinations of French governmental authorities and judges. Hardly a laughing matter here.

And although Royal's campaign tried, by turns, to brush the incident off as insignificant and accuse her opponent, UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, of dirty pool (Dahan is a known UMP sympathizer, although he denies being a party member), it's the latest in a series of ill-advised remarks ranging from the Middle East (where she claimed Iran should not even have civilian nuclear power) to China (she praised the efficiency of the Chinese justice system) to Quebec (both Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest roundly condemned her initial remarks as interference in Canadian internal affairs).

After coming out of nowhere to grab the Socialist Party nomination, based largely on charisma, popularity, and a vague promise to listen to the concerns of the French people before defining her platform, Royal has stumbled coming out of the gate, leaving the impression of a gaffe-prone candidate who can't be taken seriously.

It's still early, but unless Royal recovers quickly, one of the second-tier candidates, most likely centrist UDF candidate François Bayrou, ought to be able to capitalize on the anti-Sarkozy defectors she's bound to lose. In any event, the long-awaited showdown between Royal and Sarkozy has suddenly become far from certain.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Friday, January 26, 2007

La Presidentielle

Today I'll be kicking off a recurring feature on the French Presidential election, known here as "la presidentielle." It's a subject that gets almost no news coverage in the American press, which is a shame, really, because if politics were a sport, la presidentielle would be the Olympics. That's how well the French practice it. They realize that democracy, more than allowing the people to govern, is really a means of limiting the kingship in order to widen the field of those who might aspire to it. Longtime practitioners of courtly intrigue, the best among them have mastered the art of the subtle, seemingly effortless remark that in fact eviscerates.

The classic example is an exchange during the 1988 Presidential debate between incumbent President François Mitterand and the challenger, opposition leader and Prime Minister Jaques Chirac. (Here's a video link for any French speakers.) Remember that in the French parliamentary system, the Prime Minister governs, but at the mercy of the President, who appoints him. There is therefore an implicit hierarchy established between the two men, one that Mitterand attempts to exploit in his opening remark by referring to Chirac as Mr. Prime Minister. To which Chirac responds:

Allow me just to tell you that, tonight, I am not the Prime Minister, and you are not the President of the Republic. We are two equal candidates, who submit themselves to the judgment of the French people, the only one that counts. You will permit me, therefore, to call you Mr. Mitterand.

Mitterand's short but lethal comeback?

You are absolutely right, Mr. Prime Minister.

Now there's a little over two months to go until this year's election, with all the major candidates in place. The campaign should start in earnest any time now. So over the course of the coming week I'll try to sprinkle in some posts to introduce the various candidates, as well as to recap some of the maneuvering that has already taken place to narrow the field. Then we'll sit back with a good bottle of wine and enjoy the show.

A quick overview? Interior Minster Nicolas Sarkozy is the odds-on favorite to win. But I'm betting on darkhorse centrist candidate François Bayrou to stun the field.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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