France and America: Richard Kuisel compares elections

As voters went to the polls for the French presidential elections, Richard Kuisel, author of The French Way: How France Embraced and Rejected American Values and Power shared his thoughts with Election 101 on the distinct differences between election season in the US and the one in France. Read on for an interesting study in contrasts between two political cultures including treatments of key issues like the market and capitalism, immigration, as well as a marked difference in the amount of interest in candidates’ private lives and religious faith.



France and America: Comparing Elections

Richard Kuisel


Mitt Romney speaks French! For some voters, this French connection is a handicap.  A look at the concurrent presidential elections in the U.S. and France reveals some striking parallels, telling differences, and intriguing connections.

In both campaigns the principal issue is the incumbent president.  For many renewing mandates is the question that outweighs all other considerations.  In France large majorities say they oppose reelection.  Presidents Obama and Sarkozy have provoked determined opponents, some of whom would go to great length to limit them to one term. The far right of the Republican Party, despite reservations about Mitt Romney, would hold their nose and vote for him in order to oust Barack Obama.  Similarly, in France, the far Left, who are not enamored of the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, seem willing to endorse him if need be to block Nicolas Sarkozy.  For many voters in both countries these elections are referenda on the inhabitants of the White House and the Elysée Palace and much of the energy originates in oppositional politics.  In both countries legislative elections (which in France follow in June) may not ratify the presidential vote and may thus bring divided governments.

Critics in both electorates are also motivated by a perception of national decline and blame this downward momentum on their presidents. Voters worry about a loss of international status, domestic cohesion, a sense of common purpose, and even national identity.  They ask “Are our best days behind us?”  This is an old Gallic anxiety that dates back to the Fall of France in 1940, if not earlier. For Americans this is a newer concern. The way to return the U.S to greatness according to the Tea Party movement is to remove President Obama and revive the spirit of our Founding Fathers. Sarkozy speaks of restoring traditional values like work and responsibility and his slogan is “The Strong France.”  For the Left in France the solution is to send Sarkozy into retirement and revive social democracy and civic solidarity.

Both presidential campaigns have focused on domestic rather than foreign affairs.  Candidates debate unemployment, budget deficits, and strategies for economic revival rather than  international affairs.  In the U.S. even though we are engaged in a seemingly endless war, Afghanistan is not a major issue. The war is less and less popular but the end game is depressing rather than controversial.  The principal international problem is how far the U.S. should go to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Otherwise the question is how to create jobs, reduce government debt, and remedy health care.  Among the French attention is on unemployment, the cost of living, job security, and law and order. And worry about immigration is keener in France than in the U.S. Foreign affairs are peripheral except for Europe and there debate centers on the EU’s new fiscal compact and the union’s openness to immigration.   None of these concerns, however, compete with the agenda set by the current economic and financial crises.

What is perhaps more illuminating than similarities are transatlantic differences starting with religion.  In France’s secular political culture the religious convictions of presidential candidates are irrelevant and the French are dismayed at how American politicians parade their religiosity or question the beliefs of their rivals, for example, the Mormon faith of Romney. Claiming “I am a better Christian than you” seems to enhance a candidate’s political profile here but not in France.   If one’s faith is not an issue in France, however, treatment of the Muslim community is controversial.

Private lives, like religious faith, occupy the American electorate but not the French. In the U.S. presidential candidates parade their wives and children, their records as parents, and their marital fidelity as certificates of electability.  And they undermine rivals by raising questions about such matters, e.g. Gingrich’s divorces.  Not so in France where politics do not intrude on privacy.  That François Hollande sired four children outside of marriage is not a handicap.  Sarkozy, however, has crossed this boundary with his high-profile divorce and remarriage to a former model while occupying the Elysée.  And he has made his temperament and life style a minor issue, but this is atypical of Gallic politics and a faint echo of how Americans conduct elections.

Money also distinguishes the American electoral process. Some ask whether or not the spending of Super PACS and the media have fundamentally distorted this election.  No such problem exists in the current French campaign.

All candidates in the American campaign praise the market and capitalism. Not so in France where both Sarkozy and Hollande  denounce market fundamentalism and the far Left presents an openly anti-capitalist stance.  Unlike the U.S. virtually all French candidates also agree on raising taxes, especially on the wealthy, avoid discussing spending cuts, and indict the financial sector for the crisis.

Are there any connections between the two elections?  A perceived “French connection” is a handicap in the U.S. Thus the Super Pac of Gingrich (who himself knows French) has belittled Romney for speaking French and Santorum has claimed (falsely) that France has not sided with America for the last 20 years. And labeling any Democratic initiative as the “European (French) way” is now a familiar Republican indictment. In France Obama remains popular and anti-Americanism is out of bounds except for latent reservations about Sarkozy.  In 2007 the latter had campaigned openly as a friend of the American way, the first presidential candidate in French history to do so, but he has retreated from this stance and America, including France’s reintegration into NATO in 2009, is not a serious issue.

Mercifully all this will be over by May 6 in France while Americans will have to struggle on until November.

Richard F. Kuisel holds a joint appointment at the BMW Center for German and European Studies and in the History Department at Georgetown University. His books include Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization