French Reactions to the 2000 US Presidential Election

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

January 1, 2001

By European standards, the French response to the 2000 election in the United States was relatively balanced. “Can we laugh at the US?” wrote the Catholic daily La Croix concerning the Florida voting experience. “The answer is yes, of course, but not too much. We can smile, while the verification goes on, but not much longer…. The danger would be to throw out the democracy baby with the bath water of the US electoral system.”

What the French will remember about the 2000 US election is superficial-outdated voting machines in Florida, and a bizarre electoral process. But to focus on these superficial points is to overlook the real problems of the American electoral system. Olivier Duhamel, a political scientist and socialist member of the European Parliament, identified some of these problems in an op-ed published by Le Monde. They include the role that money and private interests play in politics, the abstention of many segments of the population, and a related lack of confidence in the government.

The US electoral saga did evoke inevitable stereotypes and misperceptions in the French press. French commentators appear to be particularly pleased that the US democratic process has stumbled for technological reasons. “The first global hi-tech power,” writes the provincial daily Sud-Ouest, “retains a complicated and outdated electoral voting system which no one today would choose.” Against a backdrop of US economic, military, and technological successes, French commentators have taken pleasure in giving the United States a low grade for the election mix-up. They also express a sentiment, shared with other observers abroad, that this year’s imperfect, and at times strange, electoral process should soften strident American rhetoric on the value of fair democratic elections in other countries. As the weekly news magazine Marianne asked, “Who will believe that America now can declare an election in Uzbekistan or Uganda fair or unfair, or their government legitimate or illegitimate?”

In part, such sarcasm is a response to America’s own democratic rhetoric. As Bill Clinton stated in 1997, “our world leadership grows out of the power of our example here at home.” Such statements, coupled with US assertiveness about democracy abroad, have set high standards for evaluating America’s own election. But French commentary also reflects a certain competition between the democratic messages of France and the United States. Both countries have seen themselves as standard bearers for democracy, each advocating its own brand of universalism. At a Ministerial Conference on Democracy held in June 2000 in Warsaw, French foreign minister Hubert Védrine warned that democratic “triumphalism” of the American sort could be dangerous. Democracy, he argued, can not easily be imposed from the outside. His message-prescient, in retrospect-was that shortcomings in our own democratic systems do not give us the authority to lecture others on theirs. As Védrine’s speech emphasized, we have a lot to learn from an exchange of ideas between our democratic systems. The US electoral struggle offers a valuable opportunity for evaluating our democratic systems in comparative perspective.

Democracy and the Courts

Clichés and misperceptions in French commentary on the US election reveal two sources of divergence in our democratic systems: the role of the judicial system, and the role of federalism. In the first two days of the electoral saga, exaggerated rhetoric dominated French headlines: “constitutional crisis,” “political upheaval” (séisme), “US headlong flight,” “confiscation of democracy,” “A drunk spaceship floating on an uncertain orbit.” Then on November 10, as the campaigns moved their struggle to the courts, came the cultural clichés. “Battalions of lawyers enter the fray,” announced Le Parisien. France Info called the lawyers “greedy and quibbling.” “After all,” writes the provincial daily Le Journal de la Haute Marne, “in a country where one sues one’s surgeon, one’s garage mechanic or one’s neighbor at every turn, the current contention provides a formidable opportunity for spectacular proceedings.” French public opinion, fed by US law-firm sitcoms imported into France (“Perry Mason”, “L.A. law”, “Ally Mc Beal”, “The Practice”), tends to see the courts as a perennial disease threatening American democracy.

Behind this media response lies a basic difference between French and American conceptions of democracy. In France, the judicial branch is not perceived as a core element of popular rule. The judge in France is a civil servant, chosen on merit, rather than an elected official. His function is to apply statutes voted by the National Assembly, and he has much less power or latitude than his American counterpart. He must defer – if not submit – to the elected government. Since the French Revolution, each new political regime has managed to prevail against the control of judges, who have been made to depend entirely on the government for their careers. Rule by judges (“le gouvernement des juges”) was perceived as a real danger to democracy, understood as the expression of the popular will. Thus the French citizen turns to the State rather than to a judge to guarantee his civil liberties, whereas the American citizen distrusts the State and turns instead to the judge. In France, political, economic and social regulations derive from statutes, the State and civil servants. In the United States important regulatory movements emerge from contract, judges, and lawyers. The proof is in the numbers: France has 1 lawyer per 2,000 inhabitants, the United States has 1 lawyer per 350.

The French have shown themselves wary of an election decided in the courts because it is perceived as a threat to democracy. But this may be changing. “L’Etat de droit,” the rule of law, has made dramatic progress in France over the past two decades. Judges today now depend upon a truly independent commission for career advancement. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has promised to sever all remaining links between the government and the judicial branch, putting an end to political intervention on behalf of particular judges.

Moreover, recent scandals in political party finance have led French public opinion to support the judges who have tried to clean up the mess. President Chirac has himself been implicated in a scandal dating to the mid-1980’s, when he was Mayor of Paris, in which campaign funds were misused. The scandal surrounding the 1997 election of Jean Tibéri, Mayor of Paris, to the National Assembly has even softened French reaction to direct court intervention in an election. The investigation, still under way, has so far revealed fraud amounting to more than 3,000 votes, larger than the margin of his victory over his opponent. These recent developments have led to a new balance between judges and politicians in France, and they suggest that French and American views of the courts may be converging.

Democracy and Federalism

The second source of French consternation centers on America’s federal system of government. The US election (like the recent Lewinsky episode) has proven an exotic saga for French onlookers accustomed to the democratic institutions of a centralized republic. In France, election rules and polling materials are uniform throughout the country. This uniformity is dictated by the “principe d’égalité,” the sacred principle by which no distinction may be made among citizens, whatever their ethnic, religious, social, or geographic status. Three specific kinds of confusion about American federalism have shaped the French media response.

First, the French media had difficulty understanding why the election results could not be tabulated on the night of the election, as they commonly are in France. French journalists rarely explained that Washington has no national “Ministère de l’Intérieur,” and that local governments are entrusted with electoral rules and logistics. Federalism comes at the price of variation, and it makes the US voting system inherently less efficient and less equal than the French voting system. Second, the French media failed to explain that the president plays only a small role in the every day life of Americans. While he acts as an important national symbol, the American president does not wield the power of his French counterpart. This relative weakness is due in part to the role of congress, but also importantly to the centrality of local government in the American system. Despite efforts at governmental decentralization initiated in the early 1980s, French local governments still enjoy less autonomy than American states, counties or even school boards. Third, the French media have typically described the American electoral college as an absurd and outdated mechanism. Few have explained that it was designed to manage real regional differences that persist even today in the United States. In a federal union, after all, distinct entities are not always happy with decisions taken by the central government, and small states in particular require greater protection through greater representation.

If nearly all European commentators have indulged in misperceptions and clichés about the US election, few have noted the paradox for Europe. Europeans criticize the US electoral college as un-democratic and unfair, yet we have adopted a similar mechanism for the European Union. A few numbers make the point clear. In Wyoming, one presidential elector represents 173,000 inhabitants and one senator represents 260,000 inhabitants; in California, we see one elector for 646,000 inhabitants and one senator for more than 17 million inhabitants. In Luxembourg, one vote cast at the European Council represents 200,000 inhabitants (110,000 when the Nice summit is ratified) and one member of the European Parliament represents 75,000 inhabitants; in Germany, we see one vote for 7.8 million inhabitants (2.5 million after Nice) and one member of the European Parliament for 836,000 inhabitants. In other words, over-representation already exists in EU institutions as an indispensable means of ruling the continent.

If Europe is on the path to an elected European president, a prospect raised by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s proposal for a federal Europe, then we should study the US electoral college instead of mocking it. The smaller European countries would never accept a direct election system, in which France and Germany would make up more than one third of the total electorate. An electoral college system could make sense for electing a European president. We might even consider a winner-take-all election rule that could maximize the role of pivotal states. Might the first campaign for Euro-president feature Portugal and Finland as crucial swing states? Might we be re-checking Irish ballots for badly-punched chads? It is a fascinating irony that the American system of presidential elections that has been the focus of sustained European criticism may now be more suited for Europe, with its strongly independent states, than for the United States, which has enjoyed a trend towards economic, social and political convergence since the 1780s. We should perhaps reconsider if this really is “a complicated and outdated electoral voting system which no one today would choose.”

Justin Vaisse is an instructor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. From January to June 2001 he will be a resident researcher at the Center on the US and France.

Note: Some parts of this analysis draw on an article written by the author and Mr. Manuel Delamarre, to be published in the French monthly Futuribles.