France elected a new president yesterday. That is probably not news to you, of course. I admit that last night, I briefly considered making an attempt at being one of the first off-shore bloggers (I loathe the word “expat”) to weigh in on the election. Scoop the networks, that sort of thing. I considered it for exactly the amount of time it took to pour a third glass of wine and put on my pjs.
I am not really one for scoops. I can however, tell you what it is about French elections that I appreciate.
They are held on Sundays, for one.
And for another, the candidates must cease all campaign activities at midnight the Friday before.
And on election day, no projections or exit polls can be broadcast before 8:00pm, when the polls close in Paris.
I appreciate that the French vote. Participation yesterday ran at about 84%. I find that very grown-up, to take seriously one's civic duty. And especially when you bear in mind that many of those people who voted yesterday didn’t get the pleasure of voting for the candidates they had voted for in the first round. But they voted anyway. (And it is also a little embarrassing, when you compare it to our rather wimpy participation rates in God's Favorite Country.)
Throughout the campaign, I have very much appreciated that the candidate’s personal lives have not been paraded in front of the public as evidence of their moral superiority, or their lack of fitness for office. I find that very grown-up.
Ségolène Royal, as it happens, is not married to the father of her four children. You can imagine how that would go over in an American election. Nicolas Sarkozy and his (second) wife have been separated for a couple of years, and in fact a couple of years ago were each photographed with their respective lovers.
It makes for fun gossip, sure. But as far as politics goes? As far as it being an impediment to getting elected? Shrug. “Et alors?” That’s French for “and your point is…?”
[Interestingly, on election night, his wife didn’t turn up until later in the evening. He was accompanied to his acceptance speech by one of his sons and his two step-daughters. (The Martin sisters, Judith and Jeanne-Marie. Remember those names. They are very blonde and very attractive. They make the Gore Girls look homely, and Carmelite, by comparison.)]
One thing, however, I don’t appreciate. Nearly every news source I have read or heard from in the past 24 hours, here in France or abroad, has referred to this as a “decisive” victory for Nicolas Sarkozy, and a “mandate” for change.
He did win 53% of the votes cast. That is a majority, indeed. That is a clear win. And yet, of the total votes cast, almost half -- 46.9% -- were not cast for him.
So to my mind, it wasn’t a mandate. “Mandate” signifies a pitiless trouncing. A “mandate” is Bush’s 50.7% of the popular vote, embarrassingly obliterating Kerry’s 48.2% in the 2004 elections. That is the people speaking clearly with one voice.
The couple-points-more-than-half that Sarkozy earned was enough for an unambiguous victory, but it still means that a lot of French people did not go to bed feeling particularly optimistic. Not that the French are ever optimistic, but still: just under half of the country is not happy to see him in office.
Several reasons. Sarkozy wants to make changes; changes that absolutely have the potential to revive France’s economy (he plans to address unemployment; national debt; the massive costs of running the French state; government regulations and union restrictions that stifle entrepreneurial efforts, etc). But these same changes have the potential to mess with the status quo, and the French are not instinctively great lovers of change. And some of the changes may hit hard. Workers are accustomed to feeling protected, and to having certain privileges. They are deeply mistrustful of "liberalisation," i.e., globalization, and of corporate power run rampant.
Americans are beaten over the head with the idea that the greatest good is the health of the economy, and that to be free is to be permitted to invest, to consume, and to profit to the fullest extent of one's desires. The French, by and large, don't see themselves, nor freedom, in quite that way. They are a republic first, composed of citizens. The economy isn't a citizen.
But back to Sarkozy. He wants to make mortgage interest tax-deductible. It isn't, right now. (Which was quite a shock to my American ears). He has some good ideas. But he scares some people. Correction: a lot of people are scared of him. And not without reason. He’s a Rudy Giuliani, zero-tolerance kind of guy. He takes a hard line on what we Americans call “illegal aliens” (with typical discretion, the French refer to them as the “without papers”). He proposes a Ministry of National Identity and Immigration to establish, I think, among other things, criteria for Frenchness (which has a whiff of Vichy that freaks a lot of people out. As it should). He is associated with-- courtesy of his stints as Minister of the Interior -- police excesses and harrassment in the banlieux (the projects).
He has a famous temper. I could go on.
But Sarkozy knows all this. I don’t know if he really cares that people are afraid of him. I don't know if he will be much of a consensus-builder. But he is a great politician. And a great speaker. In his acceptance speech he cited his respect for Madame Royal. There was a booing heard throughout the room at the mention of her name. He chided the audience. “I have respect for her and for her ideas. To respect Madame Royal is to respect the millions of French who voted for her.”
It wasn’t any kind of assurance for those millions, but it was certainly the right thing to say. He also extended a hand to France’s American friends (a friendship he described as being forged in the tragedy of history) assuring them of France’s friendship and support, but noting that “friendship is also accepting the fact that friends can think differently."
He said that the United States has the duty to not obstruct the fight against global warming, and to take the lead in the struggle “because what is at stake is the future of all humanity."
It wasn’t any kind of assurance, but when you consider that the great majority of the several billion people on earth didn’t vote for him at all, it was quite a grown-up thing to say.