In praise of French democracy

On board Eurostar, homeward bound after a Parisian Easter break, I am, as always, full of praise and affection for La France.

In the area where we were staying, activity on behalf of the Socialist candidate, for the forthcoming Presidential election, was omni-present. I collected a sheaf of leaflets and lettters politely profferred in markets on his behalf. I have little knowledge of French politics, but I can safely say that the 12th arrondissement of Paris is securely in the bag for François Hollande.

Yesterday’s Figaro described the extraordinary global nature of the French elections, with voting taking place in embassies, consulates and far-flung territories (such as Réunion, French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique) all across the world. The ex-pat electorate numbers 2.5 million, which is just short of the entire populaton of Jamaica. For the first time this year, those ex-pats will elect 11 representatives in the national parliament.

A purist would question why the French have two voting rounds (the first is on April 22nd, then there is a run-off, if necessary, on May 6th). Why not just have one STV vote? However, there is something curiously French and admirable about the two round system. It accomodates, no doubt, an intensifying national debate, some of it, one likes to imagine (I hope not patronisingly), indulged over long wine-fuelled lunches amidst much vigorous arm-waving. The two round system also allows for that great French prerogative, changing one’s mind.

It’s to be welcomed that, apart from the two main candidates, Sarkozy and Hollande (pictured right on a Parisian magazine stand), there are significant other players, most notably Marine Le Pen of the far right, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Far left and Francois Bayrou of MoDem, who are the French sister party of the Liberal Democrats.

In the UK, we sometimes tire of “sameness” in our politics, with little to differentiate the main parties. It seems that the French do not share that problem at this election. Yesterday’s Figaro carries a poll which shows Sarkozy dramatically ahead on the “regal” powers of the President, such as on security, immigration and taking difficult decisions. In sharp contrast, Hollande clearly leads on social and economic issues such as improving the education system, improving living standards and increasing spending power.

There is certainly a very clear choice in front of the French people, and it will be fascinating to see how it all ends.