This is a (long) political post that's different from the rest. If you were reading these pages in late December, you saw that I often watch the French news on the local educational TV channel. As a result, I get a dose of French politics, which is sometimes unsurprisingly similar to US politics, but sometimes quite different — at least it's often different in form, which can be interesting.
Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in France in late April and early May. In the US, our first presidential candidates declared their intentions two years before the 2008 election, more will declare over the coming year, and campaigning will start in earnest about a year beforehand. It (mostly) doesn't work that way in France — I say “mostly” because it's been clear for two or three years now that Nicolas Sarkozy has been positioning himself for the presidency, and there's obviously a lot of jockeying for position within the political parties. But by and large it's a fairly short process.
Though the elections are only a little more than three months away, most candidates have not yet declared their candidacy. The official slate of candidates will be out in late March and they will have a first round of elections in late April. There are two major parties — the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), which is the conservative party, and the Socialist Party, the leftists. There are a plethora of other minor parties — the 2002 elections had 16 presidential hopefuls. Candidates who get enough votes in the first round (assuming there are more than one; there usually are) make it to the second round.
The second round will be in early May, the results will be announced a few days later, and a week after that, on 17 May, current president Chirac's term expires.
Jacques Chirac, current president (since 1995), formerly with the RPR party (Rally for the Republic) until it merged with the UMP party in 2002. He's expected to retire and not run again, but he hasn't given his final word on that.
Dominique de Villepin, current prime minister (after the resignation of Jean-Pierre Raffarin) and former Foreign Minister, a career diplomat, UMP member. He got where he is by a succession of appointments, rather than by elections. There's a good chance he'll try for the presidency, but he probably can't beat Sarkozy to represent the UMP.
Nicolas Sarkozy, current Interior Minister (and former Finance Minister) and leader of the UMP. He's the favourite to represent the UMP in the 2007 election. His name and face are in the news constantly, he's very charismatic, and is a dynamic speaker. He has a “tough on crime” platform, and his policies sometimes seem exclusionist and somewhat xenophobic (though not as bad as Jean-Marie Le Pen's (see below)), but he's recently been working on establishing better relations with France's Muslim minority. Critics liken him to our own George Bush, and worry that he's too quick to grab power and sacrifice civil liberties. He also favours less church-state separation and is claimed to support tax breaks for the wealthy. His closeness to Bush was highlighted by his recent visit to the US. He's also been likened to Le Pen, which is an exaggeration, but which points out the extent to which some think he will take the UMP farther to the right.
Michèle Alliot-Marie is the current Defense Minister. She had been the leader of the RPR party when it merged with the UMP, the first woman to lead a major political party in France. She's publicly undecided on whether she'll run for president. If she does, she'll have to beat out Sarkozy, and possibly de Villepin as well.
Ségolène Royal is the Socialist Party candidate — the party of Chirac's predecessor, François Miterrand. She's slightly favoured in the polls over Sarkozy, but the difference is too small to mean much at this point. She, too, is trying to take a “tough on crime” approach, and is also fighting hard for education and family issues. She favours gay rights and same-sex marriage.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, is the far-right-wing candidate. He's run for president four times, losing handily each time, but he did get almost 17% of the vote in the first round in 2002. He's widely considered a right-wing extremist and has been called a fascist. While he's not a holocaust denier, he's made a number of statements that try to downplay the event. He'll be in the election and he'll sway the voting a bit, but that's all.
François Bayrou, leader of the UDF (Union for French Democracy) will probably run also, but he's not likely to cause any serious waves. The other minor parties will put forth candidates, but they also will matter little.
Most of the issues facing the French presidential candidates are the same as those we have here, those that exist everywhere. Crime is a big one, as you can see from the “tough on crime” stands of some of the candidates. In the US it's usually governors or mayors who deal directly with that. In France, as in the US, there's a lot of crime in low-income areas, particularly areas inhabited by immigrants (who compose the majority of the low-income population).
Religious freedom and the separation of church and state, which I group together, also tie in with immigration. Most French Muslims are immigrants, and there's a great deal of tension — partly because they're Muslims in a predominately Catholic country, and partly because of the history of the former French colonies in north Africa. The issue of whether or not to allow Muslim girls to wear head-scarves in public school was a divisive one fairly recently, ending with a hard-line decision banning all overt religious symbols from the schools.
Unemployment in France is high by US standards — around 10%. As here, jobs are moving out, to other countries, which exacerbates the unemployment problem. And as here, some blame immigrants for “taking jobs” from native French people. There are also work rules unique to France that cause their own effects, and that some want to adjust. Working hours, pay rules, rules for hiring and firing, all are sub-issues of the overall employment question. Les grèves — worker strikes — are commonplace.
The tie-ins of all these with immigration make immigration an issue in its own right, and one that Le Pen's National Front is fighting the strongest on. Sarkozy, too, would establish immigration quotas.
Education, as ever, is another important issue, one that Ségolène Royal is taking on most significantly. Again connecting to immigration, there's the state of school children's language skills (which, judging from what I see on the French news, is better there than here!). There's violence in schools. Overcrowding and budgets. The same as everywhere.
The environment, too, is as everywhere — we all share the same environment. They worry about oil spills along the extensive Atlantic coastline, about pesticides and fertilizers, the safety of the food supply, global warming and its effects, and so on.
Finally, an issue foreign to us: the European Union constitution, which first the French then the Dutch rejected in national referenda in 2005. It's now uncertain whether Europe can unite under one constitution, as it has mostly been able to unite its economies. There are also other EU issues, such as the admission of other countries (there's a great debate about admitting Turkey now).
You can probably figure out that I favour Ségolène Royal, both because of my leftist politics and because of my general preference for women as political leaders. That latter point aside, while I do understand some of the social and job-related issues that Ms Royal might not be best at, I prefer her politics in most areas, and I'm one of those who considers Mr Sarkozy to be France's George Bush.
I'll leave you with the image to the right (in more ways than one), which a friend sent me the other day. For those who don't know: It says “Vote Le Pen”, but the picture is of Sarkozy — in other words, it's saying, there's not very much difference between the two.
It's hyperbole, but there's more truth to it than I'd like there to be.