Monday, March 26, 2007


Fewer than four weeks remain until the so-called first round of the French Presidential elections, on April 22nd. After weeks of maneuvering, the initial phase of the campaign has come to an end.

Presented as a contest divided into two parts, with two "rounds" of voting, the French presidential election is really a three-tiered effort for each candidate, since the first fence that the putative candidate must hurdle is simply managing to put her or his name on the ballot. There follow the two rounds of voting to elect the president from the slate of eligible candidates. In France, it's a "one-man one-vote" in presidential elections: there is no Electoral College as there is in the USA. The two leaders of the French first round face off in the final a fortnight later, and the winner moves into the Palais de l'Elysée, the beautiful presidential palace.

The frenetic search for endorsements - along with the results of opinion polls and the presentation of each candidate's program, such as it is - has been the major topic in the media over the past month or so.

Having one's name appear on the ballot as an official candidate – this de facto first-round of the election - requires obtaining at least 500 endorsements from notables, i.e., personalities. Thousands of mayors of municipalities (there are something like 36,000 in France !), counselors general of departments and régions, Senators, and other elected officials, including members of the European Parliament, are entitled to give their signatures to a candidate.

The hunt for signatures has filled the front pages of the press sometimes to the exclusion of more important issues. Stories abounded that such and such candidate ("as usual ?", went the refrain) was having trouble obtaining endorsements because heavy political pressure was being applied by one of the major parties to their members who might have thought about endorsing an out-of-party candidate. Discussions in the media focused on the inherently antidemocratic nature of such pressure, and were frequently coupled with calls from all quarters for reform to the system. Other articles focused on numerous mayors' complaints that they, and their property, were increasingly subject to physical harassment and abuse from their fellow citizens if they were so foolish as to endorse a candidate from the "wrong" party – the Front National, for example. Other stories this year drew attention to several rural mayors who had stated that their signature would be given to the highest bidder, any monies being gained going into his or her municipality's coffers and not into the mayor's own pocket, bien entendu. Still other stories highlighted mayors who simply and publicly drew a name for endorsement out of a hat. The Constitutional Council quickly put a stop to most of these shenanigans, invalidating auctions of endorsements as well as random drawings without so much as a batting its collective eye.

In the middle of February 2007 there were approximately 45 self-declared candidates for president. Some were obviously off the wall, in the race only to further their personal, sometimes obscure political agendas or careers, and were never taken too seriously by anyone except a relative handful of acolytes. Others were far more credible, such as Mme Corinne Lepage, an ecologist who was on the presidential ballot in 2002, and M Nicolas Hulot, a journalist cum high priest of "ecology" - who is 100% beholden to one of the largest media groups in France, TF1. Even José Bové, the poster boy for the altergloballist movement renowned worldwide for attacking a McDonald's restaurant and dismantling it, declared his availability as a candidate.

It was beginning to look as though there would be as many candidates in 2007 as there were in 2002: back then, 16 were on the ballot. Every couple of days, though, a self-declared possible candidate would withdraw, citing financial difficulty or lack of publicity, and sometimes both. The experienced Mme Lepage, for example, desisted in favor of one of the up-and-coming frontrunners. The media marionette M Hulot backed out, stating that he simply preferred to remain "in the background" (of course, M Hulot's future marketing punch for TF1 - and its allegedly moneymaking "Ushuaïa" brand - would never have recovered from his losing run at the presidency – could there be a connection ?).

On March 19, the Constitutional Council certified signatures and issued the final list, that is, the names of the candidates who had submitted 500 or more audited endorsements and were thus entitled to have their names on the ballot. They also gained electoral subsidies and officially apportioned TV and radio airtime. There are 12 candidates this year, four less than 2002. To the surprise of many, M Bové just squeaked in, with 504 signatures.

The list is quite instructive of just how French society is split. Here they are, in alphabetical order by "left" and "right":

Monsieur Olivier Besançenot (communist)
Monsieur José Bové (alterglobalist)
Madame Marie-George Buffet (communist)
Madame Arlette Laguiller (trotskyist)
Madame Ségolène Royal (socialist, aka center-left)
Monsieur Gérard Schivardi (socialist)
Madame Dominique Voynet (ecologist)

Monsieur François Bayrou (center-right)
Monsieur Jean-Marie Le Pen (rightest)
Monsieur Frédéric Nihous (rightist)
Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy (center-right)
Monsieur Philippe de Villiers (rightist)

It is generally accepted that only four of these candidates (call them the Big Four: Royal, Sarkozy, Bayrou, and Le Pen) have a hope of making it into the second round. The voters' preferences, naturally but somewhat unfortunately for democratic debate, in Amerloque's view, have been the subject of opinion poll after opinion poll, survey after survey, rumor after rumor, speculation after speculation. Almost every day new numbers are hurled with gleeful abandon at the French public, which Amerloque feels is beginning to reel figuratively under the onslaught: Sarkozy is "up three", Royal is "down two", Le Pen is "down one-half", Bayrou is "up six". After several weeks of this, one has a tendency to want to tune out and attempt to focus gamely on the issues and on candidates' programs, rather than on the unceasing litany of evolving figures – which may or not be reliable, in Amerloque's view.

Suffice it to say that after a fairly good beginning, Mme Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, has had to play fierce and increasingly strident catch-up ball, due in no small part to her own mistakes and misstatements concerning foreign policy and the fact that her program, the pacte presidentiel, reads more like a list of socialist entitlements for students and families rather than a credible platform for France and all the French people over the next five-year term.

Way back when the idea of a Ségolène Royal candidacy was confined to members of the Socialist Party – not that long ago, as a matter of fact – one of the more astute professional observers of the French political scene, Alain Duhamel , turned a neat phrase when he wrote about Mme Royal:

"She resembles those empty white spaces on those old-time maps of yesteryear, attractive by their mystery and their novelty, striking the imagination but heretofore unexplored." (Elle ressemble à ces taches blanches des cartes géographiques d'antan, attirantes par leur mystère et leur nouveauté, propres à frapper les imaginations mais encore inexplorées. )

Now, of course, Mme Royal has in some respects become terra cognita and the French are beginning to wonder about her, indeed. She sometimes comes across in public as a hateful, arrogant, egomaniac (Ségol'haine and Ségoiste are but two of her nicknames) , and one has some difficulty imagining her as a representative of France internationally. (Even her Socialist "friends" have recently called her haughty, calculating, lying, shallow, populist , and dangerous … c'est dire …) For many French people – notably the self-employed and the managerial classes - the fact that she has never held a private sector job in her life does little to confer believability on her ringing declarations about "conquering foreign markets" and "reviewing the 35-hour workweek" through "win-win negotiations between workers and bosses" and "financing entitlements and investments through economic growth". The fact that Mme Royal (the "gazelle") has had to call the Socialist Party heavyweights (the "elephants") to her rescue and ask that they show public solidarity with her has not helped the earnest image of independence and freshness that she wants to project to the electorate, especially since many voters feel that the Socialists are in great part responsible for the problems France is facing thanks to their periods of governance dating from 1981. Voters seem to be liking what they discover about her – and her program - less and less, and Amerloque feels that it is unsurprising that Mme Royal has constantly been trailing M Sarkozy.

Ah, yes - M Nicolas Sarkozy. As the current Minister of the Interior and leading presidential candidate – wearing two hats, in a word - he is in many respects "damned if he does and damned if he doesn't." In Amerloque's view M Sarkozy has quite clearly chosen to be himself and let the chips fall where they may, since no matter what he does or doesn't order when wearing his "law and order" ministerial hat, his political opponents find reason to criticize him and lay any and all responsibility directly on his doorstep. Some French people apparently feel that he is hardening some of his positions and moving "to the right", supposedly "to attract the Lepenist vote." His recent proposal to create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity caused an enormous outcry: not only did he dare to suggest an examination of two virtually taboo subjects, but he linked them together.

M Sarkozy's response to most criticism is almost disarmingly simple. First of all, he states that candidates during a presidential election are supposed to talk about issues: that's why there are elections, to decide issues. He says that he is simply bringing up these issues - and then asks why some issue(s) can't be discussed in France, when in other countries the same subjects are debated out in the open. He finishes up by emphasizing that he wants to be the president of France, for France and the French people and that in France there are many currents of thought, all of which should be taken into consideration when making policy to solve the many problems France is faced with. For him, no one has a monopoly on the truth, and if problems are not identified and discussed, they will most assuredly remain unsolved.

Such statements might ring true and noble to many - but equally as many people are judging him by past performance and on somewhat debatable ad hominem criteria. He is felt to be an excitable, aggressive, vindictive, changeable individual, capable of the very worst on a bad day – and, his critics allege, of not much better on a good day, of which there have been very few. His good deeds are invariably overshadowed by his bad ones, they assert. He is seen as a representative of the "free market right", as a continuation of outgoing President Jacques Chirac's policy rather than a "candidate who represents a break with the past" (le candidat de la rupture), as he portrays himself to be. The president's recent endorsement of M Sarkozy is a genuinely two-edged sword, and is even considered by some to be M Chirac's "vengeance" for M Sarkozy's so-called betrayal in the 1997 Presidential elections, when M Sarkozy declared for M Chirac's rival on the right, M Edouard Balladur. M Sarkozy's position as a candidate might be somewhat clearer up from now to Election Day, nevertheless, because he is leaving his job as Minister of the Interior today. In Amerloque's view, it is unsurprising that M Sarkozy leads poll after poll. His discourse is one that speaks of France and the French people. Whether or not he can deliver on his promises, naturally, is an open question. Yet the fact that remains on top of the voting surveys, time after time, suggests that many French people think he can.

In 2002 presidential election, the "Third Man" was one Jean-Pierre Chevènement, an experienced Socialist politician who had been busily recasting himself as a centrist. He caved in the first round of the election , receiving only 5.33% of the vote and finishing in the sixth position among the sixteen candidates, although the polls had been giving him as much as 11% a few months prior to the first round. This time around, the Third Man is M François Bayrou, an experienced rightist politician … busily remodeling himself into a believable centrist who can offer an alternative to the two "entrenched" parties, those of Mme Royal and M Sarkozy.

M Bayrou, a farmer and horsebreeeder (from the Béarn, bordering on Gascony), who has a degree in letters and wrote an excellent bestseller about the French King Henri IV, has been in French politics for many years. He is a member of the UDF (Union pour la Démocratie Française), the mainstream political party whose members most notably include Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the third president of the Fifth Republic and François Mitterrand's predecessor, from 1974 to 1981. M Bayrou has been a representative (deputé) in the National Assembly since 1986, and, as a matter of fact, was also the Minister of Education from 1993 to 1997 in the center-right Balladur administration, as well as in both tenures of the center-right Alain Juppé. Hence he certainly does not lack political experience at the national level.

Nevertheless, M Bayrou is faced with basically the same problem as M Sarkozy: he is in no small measure responsible for some (or many) of the current policies because he a) served in past governments and b) still belongs to the center-right majority in Parliament. "With such antecedents," many French people ask, "just how he can magically present himself today as a candidate offering a credible break with the past ?". Certainly he is the image of what the French love to see in their public figures: a man who expresses himself unambiguously in clear, daily language, who can be as intellectual as necessary and has even written a book, who is close to the land (le terroir), and who has a discreet private life and six children (une famille nombreuse). One never, ever sees M Bayrou in the "people press". Perhaps these characteristics can go some way to explaining why, from a figure of 6% or so several months ago, M Bayrou has recently managed to garner over 20% of apparent voter intentions in some polls, emerging as a serious challenger to Mme Royal and supposedly nibbling at M Sarkozy's constituency. In Amerloque's view, the media has played a large part in M Bayrou's gain – he is invariably presented as a "new-but-credible" candidate, with his own ideas. Some observers feel that his poll scores reflect nothing more than media hype, while others feel that his candidacy is being pushed hard so as to keep National Frontist Jean-Marie Le Pen out of the "Third Man" position. Whether or not Bayrou's candidacy is simply a flash in the pan will be decided by the voters themselves on Election Day.

M Jean-Marie Le Pen is the fourth candidate who has a chance of reaching the second round of the election. Founder and leader of the National Front, he has been portrayed for decades and decades in both the French and international media as a "far right" extremist - a racist, anti-Semitic xenophobe desirous of establishing some sort of fascism in France. To the immense surprise of many observers and French people, including many in the media and cloud-dwellers in political parties who apparently were not paying much attention to what was happening on the ground, M Le Pen received 16.86% of the votes in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, second only to outgoing President Chirac's 19.88%. M Le Pen was roundly trounced in the runoff two weeks later, scoring but 17.79% to M Chirac's 82.21%. For many years M Le Pen's political stock in trade has been his opposition to uncontrolled immigration and untrammeled capitalism; his desire for implementation of a "national preference" in housing, jobs, and acquisition of citizenship; and his wish for a renaissance of nationalism, including a revision of France's relationship to the European Union and other European countries. While it is generally asserted that many people vote for M Le Pen as a "protest", or out of "fear" or out of "racism", it is also clear that on any one day he can count on approximately 15% of the voters. Given the relatively recent past (the French vote against Europe in May 2005, and the weeks of suburban riots that same autumn), it is clear that some of the ideas he defends have now reached the mainstream, and are no longer beyond the pale of serious consideration. (le lepénisation des esprits) Some theses have even been deemed worthy of debate by the other mainstream candidates: M Sarkozy's suggestion for a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity (called Lepeniste by his detractors), and Mme Royal's singing of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise" at some of her campaign rallies are but two cases in point.

Unlike the other three main candidates, M Le Pen is against both immigration and Europe. These two issues have taken on great resonance among the electorate in the past several years, in Amerloque's view, and their influence on the outcome of the election should not be underestimated. For example, one cannot be "against Europe" and vote for Mme Royal, M Sarkozy, or M Bayrou. The three of them are pro-Europe, albeit in varying degrees. Presumably those "against Europe" can cast their vote in favor of a "small" candidate - some of whom are "anti-Europe" - but if one wants one's "anti-European vote" to count, one must necessarily vote for M Le Pen. The same sort of reasoning can be invoked for issues such as immigration, citizenship, globalization, offshoring, and defense: for better or for worse, M Le Pen represents a break with what has been done over the past 25 or so years. Too, the whole question of political correctness floats just beneath the surface: M Le Pen has never been too mealy-mouthed about how he feels or thinks (again, for better or for worse, especially insofar as his alleged anti-Semitism is concerned) and has never hesitated to call a spade a spade. Several of M Le Pen's past analyses have turned out to be "true", in some respects, and this has not been lost on the population at large. The feeling some voters have of being entrapped in the world of the politically correct should not be underestimated, either.

Amerloque has several other observations, which he will offer here in no particular order and with no particular emphasis:

Media - Perhaps the media organizations belong to the big-money capitalists, as the left never tires of pointing out, but the corporation of French journalists is quite obviously pro-Royal. It is unquestionable, too, that the media, (that is, those journalists out in the trenches) are certainly anti-Sarkozy. Ségolène is almost invariably presented in positive, sometimes glowing terms; many of her gaffes are minimized if not ignored outright, while flattering pictures of her are published almost daily. Nicolas and his policies are generally presented in negative terms; photos of him are unflattering in the extreme, almost always accenting his short stature and drawing attention to his somewhat shifty eyes. M Bayrou is generally portrayed as a reasonable man of dialogue, a sort of Diogenes-like seeker of truth and justice wandering in the Slough of Despond of moroseness and self-flagellation into which France currently seems to have sunk. Finally, M Le Pen is still the devil incarnate, the outcast of society: highly inflammatory photographs and devastating criticism, sometimes wildly untruthful, are his daily lot, as it has been for so many years. He is portrayed more as threatening bogeyman lurking just over the horizon than as a real alternative for France. Not a day goes by without the obligatory "Nous devons éviter un nouveau 21 avril !" ("We must avoid a repeat of April 21", i.e., the first round of the 2002 presidential election when M Le Pen qualified for the second round) uttered by a fawning but somewhat pompous talking head. The eight remaining candidates appear in the press, on the radio and on TV; their positions – no matter how extreme or unrealistic or backward looking - are described, examined and commented, but for the sake of form alone: only one of the Big Four will be grabbing the brass ring.

Buzz - There is little workplace buzz compared to that preceding the elections for the European Constitution in May 2005; these presidential elections are a bit low key. Debates and discussions certainly fill the papers and the airways, but the feeling of making history just doesn't seem to be there, in Amerloque's view. This dovetails badly with the reality of this election, which is that the older generation represented by M Chirac (b 1932) might be yielding power to a younger generation represented by Royal (b 1953), Sarkozy (b 1955) and Bayrou (b 1951) – unless Le Pen (b 1928) were to win the whole enchilada. In the latter case, it would be back to the drawing board for many, many people.

Youth – There apparently will be many more young voters this time around than in 2002. The 2005 riots in the projects (les banlieues) were a call to arms for many of the young people living there, while the early 2006 demonstations against the CNE (Contrat Nouvelle Embauche, the new hiring contract for employment) politicized others. The political parties picked up the ball and ran with it, encouraging those over 18 to register to vote. In spite of polls in newspapers showing that many young people will vote, it remains to be seen whether this in fact will be the case on The Day. It also remains to be determined is just who young people – as though they were a homogenous group - will vote for: in Amerloque's view, it probably won't be a tsunami for the left, and might even be quite surprising. This is not the 1968 generation, after all.

Background Noise – To put it bluntly, there doesn't seem to be much good news that the French can grasp to to help them make their decision. On the economic front, companies are downsizing and offshoring like there's no tomorrow, though government statistics show a drop in unemployment. Crime seems to be increasing – yet once more, government figures state the opposite. ("Can the numbers be believed ?", many ask around the coffee machine.) Public services such as train transport and postal delivery seem to be afflicted by cases of terminal incompetence. Small groups with various doctrinal axes to grind stage demonstrations and events to attract media attention during the campaign – it is the ideal time to make one's demands known to the world, after all. "Europe" is in trouble. One bothersome hum in the background that few refer to: as Amerloque had surmised back in June 2005 when he stated:

Amerloque's experience in France has taught him that it would be impolitic to underestimate or misunderstand the French people: they do not practice reform when the situation becomes catastrophic. Rather, they sweep away the existing structure and set up a new one. Future historians may very well look back at May 29th, 2005, as a landmark date during the tumultuous advent of the Sixth Republic.

plans for the Sixth Republic are well afoot and proceeding apace, if Mme Royal is to be believed. She has referred to it many times during the campaign, promising watershed institutional changes, including an assemblée constituante and new "powers to the people". One of her spokespeople, Arnaud Montebourg, is a major proponents. No one as yet, however, sems to have raised the debate about a Sixth Republic to the level of a major campaign issue. Amerloque remains perplexed as to why not, since the Sixth Republic appears markedly similar to the somewhat catastrophic Fourth Republic, that of spineless political parties and Tammany Hall-like maneuvering.

In conclusion, Amerloque has been wondering which of the 2007 Big Four he would find it interesting to have lunch with. Without a doubt it would be M Bayrou, simply because he seems far less a prisoner of his preconceptions and his own propaganda than the others. Would Amerloque vote for him, then, if Amerloque could vote in France ? Not a chance: a nice luncheon would be quite enough.


Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyright reserved to copyright holders, including Amerloque

Monday, March 05, 2007


The month of February in France is usually fairly calm, with its two certain "holidays" and a possible third, and this year of 2007 is no exception. The campaigning for the upcoming presidential elections, of course, provides background noise and ample fruit for discussion in all walks of French life.

Two of the February holidays – "special days" would be a more appropriate term - are based on the civil calendar: the Fete de la Chandeleur at the beginning of the month (February 2nd) and St. Valentine's Day (February 14th). The former is known in the United States and in other English-speaking countries as Candlemas. It celebrates Roman Catholic holiday of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth: the name Chandeleur apparently comes from the Latin candelorum festum which means 'festival of candles', since vast numbers of these used to be lit in churches in celebration. The tradition here in France is to eat crepes on the day. While cooking the crêpes, one is supposed to hold a coin in one's hand and, with the other, flip the crêpe - and catch it while making one's wish for the New Year. Only if one catches the coin – ideally gold ! – will the wish be granted. Groundhog Day is unknown, although it's always fun to describe the tradition to French people (oui, oui, c'est 'la marmotte d'Amérique', et c'est 'le jour de la marmotte') who, although interested, may be completely unaware that the whole hibernation rigamarole is allegedly based on Celtic folklore.

After the relative success of Hallow'een in France over the last decade the marketing and merchandising busybodies apparently took a good, hard look at all of the business opportunities in the US and decided that le jour du Saint Valentin would be yet another excellent way to separate the consumer from her or his hard-earned money. The celebration of Valentines Day as a holiday for lovers dates from the Middle Ages: of course, before then it was considered to be a holiday for singles, not couples. The heretofore quiet, somewhat private holiday has now been turned into a small merchandising extravaganza à la française. Though the commercial possibilities are still nascent, at least compared to the USA, every year the media refer to it from the beginning of the month in increasingly glowing terms, for almost two full weeks. It will still take several more years before the buzz reaches anything approaching North American proportions, Amerloque feels (and hopes).

The third holiday occurring in February is mardi gras, which in the USA can also be called Shrove Tuesday – or even Pancake Day (once again, crepes are the dish of the day !). It heralds the end of Carnival: the following day is Ash Wednesday, that is, the first day of Lent, the forty-day season of fasting preceding Easter. Since Easter is a moveable feast, Mardi Gras is, too: the date can vary from February 3rd to March 9th in non-leap years, or from February 4th to March 9th in leap years. Hence Mardi Gras can even be in March, although it is very much associated in the public mind with February.

Why ? There are school vacations in February: these are called les vacances d'hiver, the 'winter break', and mardi gras is frequently associated with it (it was on February 20th this year). This 'break' is not just a respite of a few days, either, but a full holiday of several weeks. The entire country has been divided into three school zones, each of which has different but somewhat overlapping dates for its break. The Paris area vacation this year is from February 17th through March 4th, for example, while the children in Toulouse, say, are off from February 10th to February 26th, and the kids in Strasbourg are free from February 24th to March 12th. During these holidays, the ski resorts are jam packed (staggering the breaks by region ensures a nice ski season in the Alps, of course …), traffic is unbearable, and some parts of the economy even slow down noticeably. Why ? With five weeks paid vacation per year, plus the overtime accumulated for working more hours than the standard thirty-five during the week, some parents like to arrange things so that the family can take a skiing holiday together – and they do, en masse.

France is a secular society: there is no question of that. Its Christian traditions date back two millennia, and some 'holidays' are still based on that tradition. What should be clearly noted is that neither Chandeleur, nor Valentine's Day, nor mardi gras are legal or mandatory French holidays. They are simply "special' days" which come around regularly every year … just as the "winter break" does for millions of public and private school children. One is not forced to celebrate Chandeleur or Mardi Gras or St. Valentine's Day: one simply may, if one so chooses, during the quiet month of February.

Of course, if one is in the fashion business, February might not be too quiet at all, since one must prepare for the Fall/Winter 2007/2008 collections to be shown as from February 25th this year. If one is a farmer, one must put February to good use to prepare oneself, one's animals and one's products for the annual Salon International de l'Agriculure, which this year runs from March 3rd through March 11th. An American expat living in Paris who has never visited the Salon in depth can know but little of France and the French people, in Amerloque's view.

Oh, yes … as February segues into March, the campaign for President of France continues apace. TV program follows TV program and poll follows poll. The two frontrunners, Mme Royal and M Sarkozy, trade barbs almost daily, and vie with each other to attract prominent personalities to their causes. A third 'mainstream' candidate, the centrist M Bayrou, appears to be gaining in the polls and might soon be in a position to challenge one or another of the leaders, probably Mme Royal – if one believes that the polls indeed reflect reality. In Amerloque's view, they do, at a very, very precise time, just like a photograph freezes action for posterity.

Whether or not the current polls truly reflect the voters' genuine intentions in the first round of the election, several weeks off, is another story, of course.


Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyright reserved to copyright holders, including Amerloque