As many of you know, we are coming to the climax of a Presidential election year here in France. The current President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is running for re-election after having won his first term in 2007. Funny enough, Mr. Sarkozy and I arrived on the “French scene,” so to speak, about the same time, so I’ve followed his evolution with an attentive eye. As fate would have it, five years after coming to France I am now more than an objective, curious observer of French politics. Although I do not yet have the right to vote, French debates and policies affect my life on a personal level much more than in my own countries of nationality. Whether the Conservatives remain in power in France or whether the Socialist candidate is handed the mantle, will much more profoundly touch my daily life than will the results of my absentee ballot in the US or Canada.
Given this reality, I found I needed to better immerse myself into, better acquaint myself with, the political system in France if I was to spend my life affected by its outcomes. Being part of a traditional belle-famille that is in every sense Conservative, the rhetoric I am most familiar with is that of lowering taxes, responsible governmental spending, controlled immigration and the like. Being of an inquisitive nature, however, I delved into the platforms of all the major French parties.
Here’s what I’ve discovered.
Unlike in the States, and like the UK and Canada, France has a multiple-party system. The two major parties at present are the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire – Conservative/center-right) and the PS (Socialist Party). At first sight, if you are Conservative, the name of the latter might shock you a little. Don’t be alarmed, the PSs in France are the Democrats in the US or the British Labour Party or the Liberals in Canada. They aren’t socialist in the philosophical sense. The French PSs are positioned center-left on the political spectrum, the UMP center-right.
Other major or semi-major parties include:
Les Verts – the Green Party, considered farther left than the PS Party. Recently, the French Green Party has been in the news as a strong advocate of a nuclear energy ban.
Mouvement Démocratique – centralist party, considered social-liberal and currently a concern for both the UMP (Conservatives) and the PS (Socialists) as to whether their candidate will take precious votes away from the two major camps.
Nouveau Centre – centralist, considered the Christian Democratic Party.
In total, there are over 20 registered political parties in France. But only the above six count on the National level.
A sampling of the minor parties would include: the Royalists; the Worker’s Communist Party; the Pirate Party; the Hunt, Fish, Traditions Party; and the Radical Party, among others.
Since a presidential candidate must gather at least 500 nominations from elected representatives (e.g. members of the National Assembly = Parliament/Congress, or majors, etc) to be included in the running for Federal office, most of these minor parties only influence politics from their armchairs.
The System and its History:
The French governmental system is a Republic, like the US, where offices of state are open to elections. France is currently in its Fifth Republic. Beginning with the Revolution of 1789, when the enlightened principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were first established, the country has changed its constitution five times, thus creating a new Republic with each renewal.
- The First Republic 1792-1804
- The Second Republic 1848-1852
- The Third Republic 1970-1940
- The Fourth Republic 1946-1958
- The Fifth Republic 1958-present
You might notice lapses between certain of these dates. Indeed, these gaps were filled by a second Revolution, a Restoration of the Monarchy as well as an Occupation during war-time.
The National Government is divided into three branches: an Executive (the Presidency), a Legislative (the Assemblée Nationale and Sénat, which are akin to Congress and the Senate in the US or the Houses of Parliament in the UK and Canada) as well as a Judicial branch (the courts).
The Executive branch is governed by the elected President and his/her appointed Prime Minister, who oversees the selected Cabinet. A bit like the elected US President and his/her chosen VP. Although the division of labor in France is generally such that the President deals globally with international affairs whereas the Prime Minister handles the Assembly and Cabinet on domestic policies, this is not always the case as we’ve seen with the current President.
Two Houses of Parliament exist in France: The Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat. The Assembly has 577 elected députés elected by general vote for a term of 5 years. The Sénat consists of 348 senators for a term of 6 years and are elected by way of les grands electeurs, a system similar to that of the American Electoral College.
The Judicial branch is governed by Civil Law, as opposed to the Common Law system of the US, UK and Canada (except Quebec Provincial law). The French Civil Code is based on Napoleonic codes set down by the first French Emperor.
Finally, France is a founding member of the European Union and as a member is subject to its treaties, directives and regulations.
The 2012 Candidates:
France currently has three main candidates for the Presidential election which will be held on April 22 and on May 6. Let me take a moment to explain why there are two dates. France has a Two-Round system of elections. Essentially, the general voting population (age 18+) votes a first time in April of an election year. Any candidate who has received the 500 nominations is eligible for the First-Round. The top two contenders of the First-Round, assuming none of the candidates in the First-Round gain a majority of the votes, proceed to the Second-Round of voting in early May. At this second election, the general population votes again and the winner of the majority of those votes becomes President for a term of five years.
Interestingly, this type of system creates a few unforeseen complications. People say they vote with their conscience during the First-Round and with their reason in the second, which can pose a problem. If, for instance, there are two Left candidates in the First-Round along with one Right candidate, then those Left-leaning voters deciding with their conscience in the First-Round might end up dividing their votes between the two Left candidates so that the Left candidate less likely to win against the Right candidate (the most far-Left) in the Second-Round will advance, essentially guaranteeing a Right victory.
A similar, but reversed, occurrence happened in 2002 when Jacques Chirac (Conservative) received 19.8% of the First-Round vote while Jean-Marie Le Pen (far-right) received 16.86% and the Socialist candidate who could have perhaps won over Chirac was eliminated with only 16.18% of the votes. This ensured that Chirac would win as all the Left candidates voted for Chirac who for a Socialist voter was the better of two evils.
In the current election, some in the Sarkozy camp are afraid Conservative voters who vote their conscience in the First-Round might vote for the far-right candidate, taking Conservative votes away from the incumbent. This would ultimately pen the far-right candidate against the center-left, which would ensure a Socialist victory.
The candidates for the French 2012 Presidential election are:
- UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy
- PS, François Hollande
- MoDem, François Bayrou
- FN, Marine Le Pen (daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen who passed in 2002 to the Second-Round)
Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) won in 2007 against Ségolène Royale (PS) – who happens to be the ex-partner of the current PS candidate and mother of their four children – by only 53% of the votes. The French Press has been rather hard on Sarkozy since he declared his candidature in mid-February. Conservatives feel he did not deliver on the promises he made in 2007 and the Left feels he’s done too much. Certain comparisons certainly can be made with Obama’s position in the US. A recent New York Times Editorial spoke of the backlash toward the French incumbent. Many French voters are perhaps looking toward change for the sake of change, for better or worse. Perhaps voters everywhere are in the same frame of mind.
Critics accuse François Hollande (PS) of leading a Presidential campaign based predominately on critiquing the President rather than offering new solutions of his own. That’s a bit unfair as well, however. In January 2012, Hollande unveiled a platform of 60 propositions under the title ‘Change, it’s now!’ promoting inter alia industry, education reform, improving the economy and granting full rights to gay and lesbian couples. Hollande is considered Sarkozy’s leading component.
François Bayrou (MoDem) is focusing his campaign on improving the economy and proposes a “new democratic contract” consisting of nine major paths of attack he plans to embark upon as President. Strategically speaking, as a truly centralist candidate, Bayrou may provide the fatal blow to either of the front-runner candidates given the aforementioned complications of the Two-Round system.
Marine Le Pen, by contrast, is concentrating her platform on strengthening France as an independent country, which is a rather hot top at the moment given the devastating economic issues in Greece. She is a champion of preserving traditional French culture, tightening immigration, reducing the government’s deficit, strengthening the economy and citizen’s buying-power. The French Left like to call her a radical, some have even gone as far as to make dictatorial inferences. But the truth lies somewhere in the middle. She is more subtle and more sophisticated in her rhetoric than her father and her goals for those who love France as a country are admirable.
Having said all that, however, if I could vote, I’d most likely cast my ballot for the Restoration of the Monarchy! 🙂