I Deconstruct My Recent French Vote

Published on
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The Providence Journal

I Deconstruct My Recent French Vote

by
John R. MacArthur

NEW YORK -- A few days after I voted in the first round of the French presidential election, I dropped by the French Cultural Center on Fifth Avenue to attend a reception in honor of the American novelist Paul Auster — and to gather some political intelligence. Having reluctantly followed the candidate recommendation of a French novelist friend, I wanted to hear what other literary types were saying about Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, who will face each other in a run-off next Sunday. And I wanted to know: As a dual national and first-time elector in la présidentielle, had I voted the right way? French elections must seem peculiar to Americans. For one thing, ordinary Frenchmen evidently think that they run their country, which would explain in part the extraordinary turnout of 84.6 percent on April 22. Despite some unfortunate imitation of U.S. media techniques, France's publicly financed campaigns remain remarkably unpolluted by plutocratic wealth, special interests and vote fraud. Strict limits on campaign spending and TV advertising ensure that the richest candidates or parties don't necessarily get the greatest amplification. Thus José Bové, the anti-corporate altermondialiste who famously led the dismantling of a partially built McDonald's, was guaranteed the same minimum of state-sponsored TV time as the right-wing front-runner Sarkozy. To be sure, the four major party candidates got more news coverage than those on the fringes. But nobody had to feel cheated out of hearing genuinely alternative viewpoints — 12 in all, ranging from far left to far right. In France people don't generally assume, as I do in an American election, that the fix is pretty much in from the start, including which issues get discussed on TV. Unlike our tame, dumbed-down "debates," the French candidates are often obliged to respond to smart, sometimes hostile questions from real citizens in a studio audience. So I had the luxury of voting intelligently for president of my maternal republic in a way that I'm almost never afforded in my paternal republic. My choice was between a radical with whom I mostly agree (Bové), the candidate of the traditional left to whom I was drawn by instinct (the Socialist Royal) and the candidate with the best chance of beating Sarkozy (François Bayrou of the center-right UDF party). Sarkozy (the leader of President Jacques Chirac's traditional right UMP party) had ruled himself out for me last September when he made (as minister of the interior supposedly paying his respects on the anniversary of 9/11) an entirely political visit to George Bush at the White House, just two months before America's crucial mid-term elections. This was fraternizing with the enemy, and coming from a politician who lays claim to the independent, nationalist lineage of Charles De Gaulle, unforgivable. So what to do to stop Sarkozy? My French friend, a female novelist who had always voted socialist, counselled me to cast le vote tactique for Bayrou, since all the polls showed him beating Sarkozy in the second round, whereas Sarkozy was shown beating Royal in every hypothetical match-up. Initially I had wanted to vote for Bové because he was the only anti-free-trade candidate who was neither dogmatic communist (there were three Trotskyite candidates in the race) or crypto-fascist like Jean-Marie Le Pen. But Royal made a strong argument against voting too much on principle. In 2002, she harped, so many leftists abandoned the Socialist candidate for president that Le Pen of the National Front squeaked through to the second round, leaving the far left and social democrats alike with no choice but to vote for Chirac — hardly their cup of tea. Still, I hesitated up to the last minute. All three mainstream candidates — Sarkozy, Royal and Bayrou — supported the yes in the 2005 referendum on ratification of the proposed European constitution — which was, in effect, a referendum on globalization and free trade — while 55 percent of the French electorate, including me, voted no. Apart from American imperialism in Iraq, I believe that economic liberalism and its "free-trade" component represent the greatest menace to world stability, so how could I support either Bayrou or Royal (Sarkozy is a declared liberal on economics)? Moreover, Royal embodies what the French mockingly refer to as la gauche caviar, which, like the Hollywood/Wall Street-driven Democratic Party, has all but abandoned its working-class constituencies. The pro-Europe socialists cloak their betrayal of workers in their notion of a "Social Europe"; the Democrats cloak theirs in the rubric of "free trade." Being a socialist these days in France can be almost as bourgeois a badge as showing up at a David Geffen fundraiser. In the end I took my novelist friend's advice and voted for Bayrou, to little effect, since Royal easily took second place behind Sarkozy. Having bet wrong, I was a little embarrassed at having been so pragmatic; after all, I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. So in casual conversations at the Auster soirée I was cautious about mentioning my vote tactique. Sure enough, a socialist acquaintance, a literary critic, said she was horrified by my choice and jokingly shouted out her threat to "report me." But to my relief, another female novelist praised my good sense at the same time as she despaired about the likelihood of a Sarkozy victory. Come next Sunday, I'll vote enthusiastically against Nicolas Sarkozy, unenthusiastically for Ségolène Royal. Not ideal, but it beats choosing between George Bush and John Kerry. John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine.

© 2007 The Providence Journal

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