All you never wanted to know about French politics…

Sacre de Sarkozy

Guess what this year is?

Why, you’re right my friend, this year is French Presidential Election Year !

In May of this year, to be exact, the French will vote to elect a new Président de la République.

Under France’s current constitution, the president controls the executive branch and has power over foreign and domestic policies. Unlike the US, however, he can (and often did, over the past 20 years) end up with a government from the opposite party, as the National Assembly has the power to vote the Prime Minister (and his ministers) out. The President can decide at any moment to dissolve the Assembly and call for a new election (which he traditionally does as soon as he is elected, I think, unless such an election is already scheduled).

Thus you have a Janken-like circular structure of power, where the President still holds an advantage, being the only immovable piece of the game (5-year mandate and a pretty good immunity from prosecution, as Mr. Jacques Chirac will tell you). At all times, and regardless of the Assembly’s majority, it is customary for the President to keep his role of representation abroad, along with final say in matters of foreign policy (not unlike the POTUS). Domestic policies are his, only so long as his party holds the majority at the Assembly.

Anyway, enough with the boring talk about French political institutions. On to the only thing we may care about: Who will it be?

The answer, with a fairly high rate of certainty: either Nicolas Sarkozy (“Sarko” to his fans and enemies alike) or Ségolène Royal (“Ségo”, to same).

As it turns out, not only am I eligible to vote in this election, but I even took the time to swim through oceans of Kafkaian French bureaucracy in order to get registered in time. Living in France for the time being and possibly until the end of next year, it was only logical for me to put my money where my mouth is and express my political opinion by a local vote.

To be honest, I regret already. Like last elections in the UK, 2 years ago, these are already bound to disappoint. Perhaps even more so… As in the case of Britain, I still had some sort of a preference by default for one candidate over the opposite party. Here, I really don’t care either way. The two leading candidates have a near-identical program and both shamelessly pander to the lowest possible common denominator. Whoever wins this one won’t be invading some random oil-rich country to pay back the bunch of industrials that helped elect him or her… Nor will they really bring the country to the brink of destruction (at least not within the length of my stay here), economic implosion or any of the other doomsday scenario hung on them by their opponent.

I sincerely believe not much change, good or bad, will arise at all from this election. Hardly ever has, from any presidential election. The more I dive into matters of French politics, the more I come away convinced that it has never impacted very strongly the general direction of the country. Domestic policies seem to merely evolve through painfully slow, politically-agnostic, administrative changes. The French people are way too much of a corporatist, strike-happy people, to ever accept any sort of change that comes imposed from an elected body they perceive as pliable to street movements. It is not at all uncommon for important laws and regulations that were thrown back at the face of a government to eventually make it quietly into the books, through lower-level administrative pressure.

Now that we have established my personal indifference toward these two candidates, neither of whom will be receiving my vote in May (and no: I will not be voting for amnestied war-criminal Jean-Marie le Pen either), why not get better acquainted with their little quirks and ugly facets. After all, one of these two will be the upcoming face of France for the next five years.

Note that my disliking of them has a lot more to do with their methods and personal positions than the political line of their respective party (moderate-left Parti Socialiste for Ségolène, moderate-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire for Nicolas). First, because both parties count an incredibly wide selection of political leanings, only a fraction of which are fully embraced by their candidate, both conjoined around political middle-ground anyway; second, as I wrote above, I do not believe in their ability to have anything more than a superficial effect on deeper economic and domestic issues. I think they are both equally incompetent, somewhat manipulative, uninspired politicians with very distinct conservative leanings.

My experience with French elections is rather limited (or learnt from books), so I can only hypothesize that the “Americanization” of French politics is a recent thing. At any rate, I find it heartbreaking to see that the Show Business approach to politics has finally moved from the US onto the old continent (indeed, one could argue it hit the UK long before). Given the strong (or popular) personality of previously elected presidents of the 20th century, I guess it could be said there’s nothing new here about voting for a person and their irrelevant personality traits, over a party and its program.

Still, when they announced their candidacy, neither Nicolas nor Ségolène deemed it really necessary to have any sort of a program to offer. Mr. Sarkozy’s revolved essentially around easy securitarian sound bites pandering to the precious suburban middle-class vote, while Ms. Royal did her best to follow in his direction (lest she be accused of being one of these dreaded permissive pinko socialist idealists). At the moment, Mr. Royal is still conducting “Civil Consultation” meetings where she personally interacts with the People, writing down their grievance for inclusion into her yet-to-be-disclosed official running platform program… Leading many to question the soundness (not to mention sincerity) of this “whatever your little heart desire” approach to politics.

Mr. Sarkozy, on the other hand, fancies himself the pragmatic one, with a strong bullet list of vaguely formulated measures, all intent at purging the country from its parasitic scum (welfare queens, lamb-slaughtering illegal immigrants, drug-peddling suburban shifty youths, reckless skiers etc.)… All the while trying to keep people’s mind off the fact that he was (still is) Minister of the Interior for the past five years (having quite possibly refused the position of Prime Minister in private at some point), with all the power needed to enact most of these “revolutionary policies” all along. Surely you don’t say he would have purposely held back on his magic solution for the country all these years, for mere political gain?

In the absence of clearly-defined political lines – and because frankly who cares about ideas anyway – the media have largely focused on irrelevant, yet infinitely more entertaining, aspects of each candidate: namely, their physical appearances and personality quirks.

And they are plentiful.

Mr. Sarkozy’s alleged obsession with a sub-average height and unabashedly ambitious career run (leaving many a political corpses in its trail) have earned him a few comparisons to that other short-sized French dude. Some of them more ironic than others. There is no denying a certain part of historicity to him: he first gained nationwide notoriety in the 90’s by supporting Chirac’s former political ally and “friend of 30 years” in an ill-fated bid for the presidency against then presidential candidate (and ultimately elected president) Jacques Chirac. It took him the best of a decade to recover politically from that little bit of backstabbing (seems Mr. Chirac doesn’t take to betrayal kindly… whoddathunk), but could never quite get rid of that Marcus Brutus aura about him ever since.

The man is obviously smart. Some could even say “street-smart”, in a limiting way, given how much his academic results fall short of the norm amidst usually heavily diplomed French politicians. Although he graduated Law School, he flunked somewhat prestigious Paris’ Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po’, as it is known to its fans and failed students alike) and, more importantly, may be one of the very few presidential candidates of the past twenty years to have not graduated from l’ENA, France’s highly incestuous, elite senior civil servant school. While many put this atypical education to his credit (given the uncanny tendency of ENA graduates to gravitate toward a very French brand of technocratic bureaucracy), it is hard to imagine such an ambitious man foregoing a step so crucial in a French political career, if not for certain academic shortcomings. Then again, ENA has been criticised times and again for putting entire generations of well-connected idiot savants in control of the highest political spheres, so this omission would hardly make the man unfit to govern.

What is more bothersome is his fondness for simplistic, populist and demagogic harangues… Small catchy phrases and antagonistic speeches that have made him extremely popular among both lower- and upper-middle-class professionals, to whom he manages to play a softer, more palatable and reasonably hatred-free version of popular right wing topics (immigration, employment laws, taxes etc.). While it is not in itself a bad thing for such topics to come out of the unhealthy Politically Correct no man’s land where they had been left to rot for years, his appropriation and use for lowly political gain of such, is much less inspiring. While I personally dislike the intellectually lazy, inaccurate and potentially dangerous habit of left-wing partisans to pin him for a semi-fascist nutjob (including the insanely stupid “Sarkozy = le Pen” street campaigns), there is no denying that the man has a taste for reptilian-brain politics.

It has been said that, given the right conditions (and the right bunch of scared pea-brained constituents), Sarkozy would make a reasonably convincing French version of securitarian US neo-cons… Indeed, unlike most of his colleagues, he has never been particularly vocal in his criticisms of Mr. Double-Vé (in fact, he even managed a pseudo-official campaign meeting with him a few months ago), though I suspect this has more to do with annoying his arch-nemesis at home than establishing actual ideological ties.

“Fine”, you say, “that’s an easy choice: I’ll vote for whatever-that-chick-running-against-him-is-called.”

Yea… Well, see, it’s not that simple. Let me tell you a bit about Ségolène…

[that is, let me tell you about her, tomorrow, or later this week, whenever I will have another hour to waste on pointless local politics rambling]


  1. I know that you are already bored with the topic, and your peripatetic interests and crystalline mind has taken you elsewhere – but I would like to know your thoughts on Ségolène Royal.

    I am curious as to whether the fact that she is a woman (born in Senegal) has an impact on her election or of historical significance in the realm of French politics. I know, I know, she’s cut from the same tired ENA cloth and cohabitates with an entrenched socialist. Still.

  2. hey Felix, I know I do have the attention span of a 3-year-old on meth, but still… I didn’t get completely bored yet, it’s just that I’ve had less time than planned to spend on blogging (as usual), while things were changing very fast on this particular topic.

    But I promise I’ll find the time to write a short follow-up by the end of the week…

  3. Hi, interesting article (as a frenchman, I love to know foreigner’s point of view on my country), but maybe you forgot one guy? I hate to think we have only 2 (non-)choices…

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