Tuesday, April 24, 2007

À voter ! Talking politics à la française

They tell you, before you leave for France on an extended stay, that you had better be interested in politics. The French talk politics as much as North Americans discuss the weather, and if one’s goal is to integrate into this country’s culture, it’s best to become acquainted with at least the main players in the left, right, extreme left, extreme right, left-of-center, right-of-center, green, pro hunting and fishing, and yes, even communist, movements.

This holds especially true over the last couple of months, as the nation’s 12 candidates took to the podium to announce, underline, reiterate and restate their campaign platforms for this year’s presidential election. To scale down the number of choices, French voters take to the polls twice: at the end of the first round, only two candidates remain in the race. Spooked by the 2002 election, where voter absenteeism in the first round left citizens with the unappealing option of voting for either Jacques Chirac or the blatantly racist Jean-Marie Le Pen (who has referred to the Holocaust as a minor detail in history), this time voters flocked to the polling stations, carte electorale in hand. Attendance spiked to 85 percent; the UMP’s Nicolas Sarkozy (who represents the same Gaullist party as Chirac) and the Parti Socialiste’s Ségolène Royal (who if she wins, will be France’s first female president) will duke it out on May 6th.

Despite the hubbub (and endless discussion) leading up to it, Election Day, Part One (which took place this past Sunday) came and went peacefully. Voters, shaking off the remnants of the previous evening’s soirée, lined up outside the various bureaux de vote, patiently waiting their turn in the hot sun. There were no incidents, no calls for a recount, no disputes over what name a voter had really intended to check off.

This is largely due to the fact that in many regions, Paris included, neither voting machines, nor check-in-the-box ballots, are employed. Instead, voters receive 12 ballots, each bearing only one name, along with an envelope. In the privacy of the polling booth, voters place their ballot of choice in the envelope, discarding the remaining 11. Not the most environmentally friendly approach, but less costly than a herd of career-making lawyers battling out the results in a courtroom for weeks on end.

It’s tough to say what the final outcome will be; pundits declare that this is the most unpredictable election the country has seen. Power hungry, right-wing Sarkozy, who has been compared to both Napoleon and George W. Bush, won 30 percent of the vote – even though a considerable number of Frenchmen and women admit he scares them. The less alarming Ségolène Royal, however, came out behind at 25 percent. She may be less scary, but many are undecided as to whether she has what it takes to bring about the change of which France is so desperately in need. The runners up on the left have rallied behind her, but they represent only a tiny percentage of voters. The 10 percent that voted Le Pen will undoubtedly turn their attention to Sarko.

But it’s unclear what those who voted for underdog François Bayrou, who represents the center-right, will do the next time they are presented with an envelope. Bayrou, who up until just over a month ago wasn’t regarded as a serious contender, came away with 19 percent of the vote. This week, he is to announce which final candidate he is in support of, if any.

All of this means that there will be more election talk, and more political vocabulary for those who don’t count French as their mother tongue. The talk shows – of which there are many, all running between two and three hours long – will cover nothing but.

Those with only a mild interest in politics, however, must admit that the version française of this three-ring circus is more tolerable than it would be on the other side of the big pond. The French love to discuss, pontificate and debate; with a language that enables one to state the same idea in a hundred different ways, it’s hard not to. They can become quite heated, too: every talk show features at least one segment where everyone is yelling at the same time. What’s refreshing is that arguing here doesn’t take the same shape as it does in Anglo-Saxon culture, where when you disagree with someone, you risk losing a friendship.

“I have to tone it down when I go back to the States,” observed one Paris-based American photographer, “because people think I’m being hostile whenever I question their ideas.”

Here, one can argue all night with someone without it affecting your relationship. While it’s natural for those with common interests to run in the same circles, people don’t feel compelled to surround themselves with those who always share their opinions. The press – be it on the left or the right – harshly criticizes the representatives of the ideologies it openly supports. Friends remain friends even when they strongly disagree.

People joke that one of the reasons nothing ever changes in France is because the French spend so much time talking, they never get around to implementing any solutions. There may be some truth to this, but we are all aware of the disastrous outcome of quick change sans discussion. Inhabitants of an old country, whose violent history is visible at every turn, are conscious of this.

For now, in France, there is no respite for those who hate politics. The presidential race concludes May 6th, but that’s not the end of it. The country’s legislative elections are in June.

Then, we must discuss whether or not any of these newly elected officials will actually make a difference.