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Special Reports Last Updated: Mar 6th, 2007 - 01:44:19

The French presidential election -- Part 1 of 3: Game rules
By Jeffrey S. Victor, Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 6, 2007, 01:42

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The presidential election in France is well under way, although it is given little attention in the U.S. However, the political game rules provide an interesting contrast with the American way of electing leaders.

There are two different days of balloting. The first ballot, to take place on April 22, functions to reduce the field of presidential candidates to the two who receive the most votes. In the last election in 2002, before the screening process of the first ballot, there were 16 candidates for president, coming from as many different political parties. (The process is roughly equivalent to the party primary system of jockeying for nomination in the U.S.)

The second ballot, in May, is expected to be a run-off between the candidates of the two largest political partie: the center-right, conservative UMP Party (Nicolas Sarkozy) and the Socialist Party (Segolene Royal). However, a surprise may be in the offing, as occurred in the election of 2002. The candidate of the smaller UDF party of the center (Francois Bayrou) is gaining fast on them, and might surpass one on the first ballot.

An explanation of the political spectrum in France is necessary for Americans, because it is so different than that in the U.S. The �center� in France is roughly equivalent to the politics of liberal Democrats. The party of the French center-right has political views roughly equivalent to that of moderate Republicans (the few who remain). The political views of Socialist Party do not exist on the American political spectrum; although they may exist in New York City.

There is also a significant party on the far right in France (led by Jean-Marie Le Pen). The political views of the far-right National Front Party are roughly equivalent to those held by the nationalist, conservative Republicans, who have controlled the U.S. government since the election of President George W. Bush. In the 2002 election, Le Pen was the surprise candidate, gaining the second highest number of votes on the first ballot, edging out the Socialist candidate. (A huge percentage of voters stayed home or were on vacation, so that is not likely to happen again in this election.)

There is also a wide range of minor political parties presenting candidates for the presidency of France, all of whom have no hope of being elected. The spectrum ranges from left to right including: Communist, Trotskyite, Green, Nationalist and Monarchist parties. There is even a party for hunters and fishermen, who are concerned about conservation. Potential candidates from these parties must obtain signatures from at least 500 mayors of cities and villages by March 16 in order to officially qualify to be listed on the first ballot. (As of this date, Le Pen is complaining that a conspiracy is preventing him from getting his 500 signatures.)

There are several functions of these minor parties in France, which inspire their supporters to keep working. One is that these minor parties try to influence the two major parties in the direction of their political views, because, in close elections, the major parties may need their votes on the second ballot. In addition, candidates from these minor parties are able to get their views covered in the mass media at no cost, in news reports and television interviews; much more than ever would occur in the U.S.

This brings us to some of the practical matters of the political game in France. The most important is that huge amounts of money are not necessary to run for president of the Fifth Republic. There are no appeals for donations on television or on the Internet. There are no expensive political advertisements on television or radio. Candidates of all the political parties are interviewed, often at length, on news programs and TV magazines. Sometimes they are interviewed by groups of potential voters, often with questions that are pointed and well-informed, or hostile ones from unsympathetic questioners. Some candidates, as in the U.S., are invited more frequently than others to be interviewed on TV magazine shows. The current television �star� is Francois Bayrou of the center party; which accounts, in part, for his quick rise in popularity.

One other comparison with the American political game is important. Voting in France is on paper ballots. The French believe that voting on computers would allow for easy cheating in elections. They are skeptics and not easily deceived.

Yet, in the end, French voters today share many similarities with voters in the American presidential election. Most French people believe that political action to solve pressing domestic social problems is stalemated by the rivalry between the two major political parties. Most French people believe that their politicians promise much and deliver little. So, they are looking to political �outsiders� to offer them solutions.

Part 2 will cover the major French candidates and Part 3 will cover how the candidates propose to deal with domestic social problems, similar to ones in American society.

Jeffrey Victor is a sociologist who lives in France during the winter months, with his wife who is a French citizen. Responses are welcome at

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