A Campaign That Smells like a Sausage: France's Electoral System, a Gaullist Relic, Was an Accident Waiting to Happen. It Has Turned Politics into Low Music Hall. (Cover Story 2)

By Lawday, David | New Statesman (1996), April 29, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Campaign That Smells like a Sausage: France's Electoral System, a Gaullist Relic, Was an Accident Waiting to Happen. It Has Turned Politics into Low Music Hall. (Cover Story 2)


Lawday, David, New Statesman (1996)


With some delicacy, the erstwhile French president Edouard Herriot held that politics in France should, like the tripe sausage, "smell a little like shit, though not too much". Now the smell seems overwhelming. Britons and many other Europeans are entitled to feel some pious disgust with France over the mess in which the presidential election has landed the country. It hardly helps that the voters seem to be chiding themselves, saying: "Oh no! If we had known this could happen, we would have voted differently."

Nor does it help much that--in full conformity with the Herriot principle--the conservative Jacques Chirac, a thoroughly discredited president, is sure to win re-election in a run-off duel with Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National on 5 May. Plainly, the choice before France stinks. The whiff carries beyond its frontiers and into the Europe it believes it is cut out to lead. The French are left holding their own noses. France was the first, you will recall, to want to ostracise Austria for swerving to the far right. It was also the first to upbraid Italy for voting the dubious Silvio Berlusconi into power (and to scowl at Tony Blair for consorting with him).

How did France come to this? How did it happen that Lionel Jospin, a competent, well-meaning leader of the left, was carelessly eliminated from a major election that he was well placed to win? Why will half of all French voters, those who both deride Chirac and despise Le Pen, in effect be left disenfranchised on 5 May? Something went wrong with the US electoral system when George Bush became president despite losing to Al Gore by maybe half a million votes. Now something has gone equally wrong in France.

One danger is that Le Pen's astonishing breakthrough to the pole of French politics in the first round of voting will take the election battle on to the streets. Anti-Le Pen forces are already out there in their tens of thousands, yelling no to fascism. Students are taking the lead in Paris and other large cities. We all know what French students are ca pable of. I hate to think what may happen when Le Pen's own people, flushed with triumph, stage their annual May Day demonstration in Paris on the eve of the decisive second round. The event is always a provocation.

The map of modern France on my wall offers two main reasons: one social, the other a serious lapse of the political process. At first sight, the French have less to protest against than most. Their economy is faring reasonably well -- even in the present adverse world conditions. Their companies take on the world with brio. They enjoy levels of social security that French Thatcherites have been unable to tamper with, and they expect and get high-quality public services in return for the high(ish) taxes that they pay. Even unemployment is well on the way down. In terms of the economy, the French are now doing better than the Germans, and have been doing so for some time.

But France has had less success than its European neighbours in solving the immigrant equation, and this has become a weeping sore in the French psyche. The 7 per cent of the population who are of foreign origin are largely of Muslim Arab extraction, North Africa being close at hand and, thanks to colonial history, its people being familiar with the French language. Integration has not gone well, in part because French officialdom handles it badly. Instead of conferring French nationality on permanent Arab immigrants, it is stingy with the gift, as if afraid of corrupting a core Frenchness. This has maintained divisions that were not minor in the first place, French culture being a proud and prickly customer.

Here lies Le Pen's opening. Crime -- or so he and the moderate right contend -- is ever rising in France. The underlying suggestion in mainstream news coverage and police reporting is that Arabs, seen as impoverished and quite likely to be unemployed, are disproportionately responsible.

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A Campaign That Smells like a Sausage: France's Electoral System, a Gaullist Relic, Was an Accident Waiting to Happen. It Has Turned Politics into Low Music Hall. (Cover Story 2)
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