Why so Civil? The French Elections as Seen by “Une Américaine”

Photo: radiowood/flickr.com

At times I wasn’t sure if I was watching a presidential campaign or a game show.  With all due respect to French television, though, the digitalized image of the Palais de l’Élysée adorning the set of the Hollande-Sarkozy debate did seem like something CNN would do in a desperate, gimmicky move for better ratings.  François Hollande, the portly, basset-hound-eyed politician from south-central Corrèze sat across from the Rolex-wearing, model-espousing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy (appropriately nicknamed “bling bling”), and a war of words began under the watchful gazes of perfectly-coiffed moderators.

If the 2012 French general election was observed by Americans, it certainly wasn’t closely observed—save for those Americans who, by virtue of geography or Francophilia, felt personally invested in some way.  Hollande’s victory was an unsurprising one recalling shades of Obama’s 2008 rise, though decidedly less stimulating.  Despite the “beer buddy” mentality of so much presidential candidate positioning, Americans win elections by proving they’re exceptional—exceptional orators, exceptional businessmen, exceptional politicians.  After five years of the 5’5 Sarkozy, whose presidential ambitions could arguably have been summed up as the pursuit of “Exceptional,” Hollande successfully changed French political rhetoric and ultimately won votes, promising to be France’s “Mr. Normal.” Repeating “Moi, président de la République…” fifteen times during the course of his single debate with the actual President of the Republic was both an effective tactic in positioning the hypothetical and a disarming assault of the gesticulating incumbent.  It was clear that the presidency was Hollande’s to win or lose from the very beginning.

Watching the rise of Hollande was equally as baffling—if not more so—to a twenty-one year-old American graduate student as watching the election protocol itself, though the marked differences of the latter are not to be undervalued.  While American partisan PACs take battles to the airwaves and politicians are expected to get their own hands messy, in France much of the mudslinging seems to be done by the unapologetically biased media.  “Libé” (French newspaper La Libération) was anti-Sarko from the day he moved into the Élysée, right-of-center Le Figaro, meanwhile, staunchly Sarkozyste.  The strict rules governing airwave coverage for candidates, though, meant that our French friends escape the nastiness inherent in watching election-season television, which happily goes unpunctuated by ominous musical scores and “…approved this message” codas.  The forbiddance of exit polls and campaigning within 24 hours of the election only serve to further the general civility of French elections, though naturally zealots of anything, anywhere do what they can to deafen opposition.  If I had anticipated the all-out political war Americans somehow endure every four years, the boxing match of wit and intellect that is the French general election unsurprisingly served to tip my expectation very neatly on its head.

This is not to make French voters sound disengaged.  They are, on the contrary, highly absorbed in the posturing and boasting of the power elite in France. French voters care about the economy, they care about security, they care about immigration.  They care, in a word, about France—about its vitality, its sustainability, its future. They care about the viability of the French Idea to the extent that short, homely politicians—neither of whom could’ve banked on political success had they been American—can get into the political boxing ring, offer up their hopes, ideas, and aspirations, and be entrusted with the confidence of a nation.

If Americans care about French elections, it may be with the same level of attention paid to your Grandmother Dorothy’s antique vase in the living room—the sentimental value of French actualités may account for more than a fair share of American interest.  The history of the Franco-American relationship is too complex to take apart here, but suffice it to say that though it is meaningful, undeniable, and relatively strong, the predictable outcome of May 6, 2012 did little to impact Americans or American policy in any tangible way.  The future of the Euro Zone, and thus the future of much of the global economy, has potential to be influenced by Hollande’s anti-Austerity position, though his success at influencing Angela Merkel is as amusing an idea as the facial expression with which Sarkozy reacted to it during the debate.

And so the wheel turns, a new administration settles into place, and I content myself with rolling my eyes each time an American reminds me I’ve dedicated a good part of my life to a “Socialist” nation.  Bon courage, Monsieur Puppy-eyes.  It’s going to be a helluva five years…


Check out the French view of the U.S. Presidential Election by French Columnist, Hugo Argenton!

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