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US, French elections: Different results. Also, different processes.

May 09,2017 17:25

For Americans, the French election felt like déjà vu all over again: presidential candidates locking horns in uncivil debate, campaigns foundering in scandal, hackers releasing troves of e-mail, Russia leaning on the scale — not to mention those last ...


For Americans, the French election felt like déjà vu all over again: presidential candidates locking horns in uncivil debate, campaigns foundering in scandal, hackers releasing troves of e-mail, Russia leaning on the scale — not to mention those last-minute revelations walking the tightrope between tragedy and farce. We were sort of: Been there, done that.
Given all the parallels, it’s a bit surprising the results were so dissimilar on either side of the Atlantic: On Sunday, the moderate, Emmanuel Macron, trounced his populist rival from the National Front, Marine Le Pen. (We, you might recall, went in a different direction.) It was a landslide victory of the sort we don’t get anymore in the U.S. Whatever your politics, you have to admire how the French system sends a clear message.
Part of this is because the French do democracy the old-fashioned way: There’s no Electoral College cluttering things up, so you’re never left wondering how we got stuck with one person when the majority voted for the other.
But it also has to do with TV. In the U.S., the campaign season of political ads is a bit like binge-watching the weaker episodes of “The West Wing” or “Veep”: By the time you’ve seen them for the 50th time, their appeal dulls. But even then you can’t turn away, and, in the end, you’re left feeling a bit unclean and a lot confused. Then you go to the polls and make the most important decision of your country’s future.
In France they put a cap on political ads: The limit is zero. That’s right, there are no political advertisements on TV, or on the radio, or in the press. Political advertising just isn’t a thing. If that’s not enough to make you request your long-stay visa, you might be interested to learn they have a law against spreading fake news. And a pre-election media blackout to avoid last-minute surprises. Oh, and strict campaign-finance laws, so a presidential run costs closer to $25 million than $1.2 billion, which leaves a little in your rainy-day fund.
So, you might wonder, if there aren’t ads screaming at you all day, how does anyone know what the candidates have to say? For starters, you listen to them. Media outlets invite candidates to speak, and when they do so, officials track the time each one gets so they can keep it fair. The same holds true for debates, so it’s not just the loudest bellower who commands the stage. And if all that fails to capture your attention, you can just check your mailbox and read the four-page statements about each candidate’s platform. Everyone gets them.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems and abuses. And no one has figured out how to stop politicians everywhere from saying one thing and doing another. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to think that we might do a better job of electing the people we want if we actually knew what they stood for.
Of course, we don’t want to copy France in everything. The last time our elections looked so similar, the French took things further than necessary, lopping the head off their king. C’est la vie, I suppose. But still, that seemed a bit over the top.
 
Scott Dominic Carpenter is a professor of French and director of Global Engagement at Carleton College in Northfield.

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