Saturday, April 21, 2012

Some Surprising Differences between France and the US

[It's good to be president]

The first round of the French elections are tomorrow.  There are ten candidates - one the rightist Marine LePen, one the center-right incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy, one the Socialist Francois Hollande, and seven others of various leftist persuasions.  The two candidates getting the largest numbers of votes advance to a run-off election in two weeks.

Superficially the system resembles our own system of primary elections followed by national elections.  But the differences are important.   In the US, from the Iowa caucuses to the November election is eleven months of continuous campaigning and is staggeringly expensive.  The campaigns are at least as much about campaign-fund raising as they are about vote-getting.  Among candidates with similar political postures, they are only about campaign fund-raising.  The campaigns are so expensive that the periods between elections are themselves dominated by the prospect of the fund-raising to come.   The urgency of the competitive fund-raising is so great that the interests and desires of prospective and actual political donors come to outweigh the interests and desires of the voters, some would say entirely outweigh them.

Arguably the primacy of donors over voters is the lever with which the power of the ownership classes and special interests is applied.  The French campaign season is only a few weeks.  Its cost is minimal compared to American campaigns.  The explicit domination of money over the French political system is correspondingly less than it is in America.  Because of the smaller cost of campaigns it is harder to translate money directly into political power than it is in the United States.  France has no equivalents to George Soros or the Koch brothers.

I would love to tell you that the result is the reign of reason and the public interest, but alas it is not so.  My impressions, as a tyro and a tourist, are that the two main parties, the Gaullists and the Socialists, appeal to the self-interest of different blocs of voters.  The parties of left and right appeal to the ideology and prejudices of smaller blocs of voters.

The logic of the runoff system is that if one wants to be effective, one must join together with other groups to present a common candidate to try to make it into the top two, one of whom will be president.  Et voila, instead of a unified bloc, the Left fields no fewer than seven competing candidates, eight, if one counts Hollande.  They paraphrase Henry Clay in saying they would rather be Left than be president.

This mindless self-destructive devotion to ideology and political correctness, in the US seen mainly on college campuses, here makes an entire section of French society politically powerless and its leaders politically irrelevant.

It is a close question whether it is better to be ruled by plutocrats or by windbags, and I leave it to the reader to decide.

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