France’s American Election

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

January 1, 2007

Having spent most of the month of November in Paris — a tough assignment but someone had to do it — I couldn’t help but be struck by the ongoing ‘Americanisation’ of French politics. The most visible example of this is the adoption — by both right and left — of ‘primaries’ to choose presidential candidates. Stung by the appearance of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the 2002 election — after a proliferation of candidates diluted support for mainstream leaders — both the Socialists and the rightist Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) have for the first time ever opted for primaries. For the Socialists, this meant a series of televised debates among candidates Ségolène Royal, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Laurent Fabius, leading to Royal’s easy victory on November 16.The UMP will choose between frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy and Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie at a special party meeting on January 14.

Another import from across the ocean is the apparently growing role of ‘image’ in the choice of leaders. Royal is far less experienced than either of her erstwhile rivals (one a former prime minister, the other a former finance minister), both of whom demonstrated in the debates a mastery of domestic and international issues that Royal could not come close to matching. Yet it was she who got over 60 percent of the vote, against just 20 percent for her closest rival Strauss-Kahn. An attractive 53-year-old with a friendly smile, Royal — who graces more newspaper and magazine covers than any other public figure by far — represents change and excitement in a way her older, greyer, male rivals could not. On the right, Sarkozy cannot be said to lack experience or substance, but his well-orchestrated campaign rallies suggest he has learned from American counterparts the importance of image-management. According to the French press, many of his appearances on the evening news are from videos shot and selected by well-paid UMP crews rather than by the news media itself.

Finally, there’s the issue of the candidates’ private lives. There was a time when presidential candidates’ spouses — and mistresses — were considered off-limits by the French press, but no more. Royal’s ‘companion’ (and father of her four children) is himself a prominent politician, leading inevitably to comparisons with a certain American female potential candidate whose well-known husband politician might also soon be in the running to become his country’s first First Man.

The press has also had a field day with Sarkozy’s private life, documenting the ups-and-downs of his relationship with his wife Cécilia in ways that would have been unheard of until recently in France. Sarkozy himself has also smashed all precedent by writing about his marriage in his book Testimony, which became a bestseller in France. (Full disclosure: I translated the forthcoming US edition of the book.) All the French need now is to allow huge amounts of money to influence the political process and the Americanisation of French politics will be complete.

Political changes have also been taking place recently in America itself, of course, with the Democratic takeover of Congress leading to yelps of joy all across Europe. As Jeffrey Gedmin of the Aspen Institute Berlin put it, Europeans seemed even happier at the result than the Democrats. But Europeans should probably restrain their applause, for at least three reasons. First, Congress has only limited influence over foreign policy, the area in which Europeans hope for the most substantial change. Even the powers it does have — to cut off funding for the war in Iraq for example — it is highly unlikely to use, as it would be political suicide to seem to pull the rug out from under our troops. Second, while it’s probably true that the new Congress will be more sympathetic to Europe than was the previous one, on trade issues the opposite is the case. The new Congress includes a number of populist Democrats sceptical about free trade, and even a few outright protectionists. Extension of the president’s ‘trade promotion authority’ therefore seems dead in the water, as does any progress in the Doha round. Even Congressional Democrats’ relative goodwill toward Europe has its limits. Strong critics of President Bush’s unilateralism such as Senator Joseph Biden may be in charge of key foreign policy committees, but they now need to deliver. A European refusal to sanction Iran’s nuclear programme, for example, or to share the burden of peacekeeping in Afghanistan, could lead at least some Americans to conclude that maybe Bush had it right after all.