The French Elections

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The French go to the polls this next Sunday to elect a President. On Wednesday of this week, over a million people were out in the streets of Paris, mostly in protest. They weren’t protesting the election itself. They were protesting one of the two candidates. But first, a bit of recent history.

The French presidential election process is separate from their elections for parliament ¿ a stand alone election, if you will. The first round, conducted two weeks ago, is something of a free for all: fifteen to twenty candidates are not uncommon. The top two vote-getters then face each other in a runoff, which this time, is next Sunday.

The broadly held assumption going into the first round was that the incumbent, Jacques Chirac the center-right candidate, would in the runoff face Lionel Jospin, the center-left candidate. The first round election did not produce the expected result. Chirac did indeed come in first but with an embarrassingly small percentage ¿ just under 20%. Jospin came in third and was therefore eliminated.

The second place finisher was Jean-Marie Le Pen the ultra rightwing, ultra nationalist, perennial candidate. The result provoked big headlines of “Shame”, “Earthquake,” and “No” in the French press. The Economist, the weekly news magazine published in London, put a picture of Le Pen on the cover with the bold headline, “France’s Shame.” Some of those people in the streets of Paris this week were pro-Le Pen but the overwhelming majority were there in protest against his being in the runoff. It is highly probable that Chirac will overwhelmingly be reelected.

But it will be something of a distortion. Chirac is not all that popular; over the last couple of years he has been the brunt of numerous charges of serious corruption and the subject of several investigations dating back to his days as Mayor of Paris. But he will win anyway. There were lots of signs this week which said, “Better the crook than the fascist.” It is hardly a ringing or enthusiastic endorsement.

Meanwhile, Le Pen makes Pat Buchanan look like a raving liberal. He, Le Pen, is profoundly anti-immigration, saying that there are too many people in France who aren’t French. He has announced that he would withdraw France from the European Union and withdraw from the new common currency. He is widely labeled as anti-Semitic and is openly and unapologetically racist in his pronouncements about the many North Africans living in France.

Despite all this, he is a brilliant political campaigner. He is to current French politics what the late George Wallace was to American politics thirty or so years ago. Le Pen won’t get elected but he probably will succeed in pulling the center of French politics toward the right.

What will not happen however, is any really constructive move toward addressing the issues of race and ethnicity that bedevil France and several other European countries. For all of America’s problems that stem from racial issues, there has nonetheless been a protracted public discussion about such matters with a host of constructive changes over the last couple of generations. Not so in France.

So stay tuned. Chirac will get reelected but the circumstances that created this so-called “earthquake” in French politics will remain. Sunday’s elections will produce a winner but no solutions. This is just the beginning.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria. Listen to more of Olin’s commentaries online at Salzburg Seminar.

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