Made in France

Straight Outta Sarthe

So! It’s been a while. As you may have heard, we in Washington have had a curious past few weeks. The number of protests I have attended since January 20th now sits at 4 (the preceding 30-year average was 0), and I’ve gotten pretty good at protest dress, protest sign-making, and protest chanting, among other things. The flurry of executive belches emerging from the depths of what was once America’s great seat of statesmanship has been terrifying yet seemingly inescapable; I’ve had to enact strict limits on how long I can actually spend on social media tracking this race to drive America off a cliff, because otherwise that’s all I’d be doing all day.

Fortunately, France, too, has delivered some excitement, with erstwhile poll leader François Fillon snagged up in a scandal already hashtag-christened #PenelopeGate. Now, I know I wrote in November that the 2017 French presidential election had basically already been decided in favor of the guy who actually ended up losing to Fillon, so my France-dar is maybe a little wonky, and the rest of this should therefore probably be taken with caution. However, Fillon’s stumbles do make for an important lesson in accidental political self-immolation that should be required reading for all poli sci students going forward.

I learned of Fillon’s primary win while watching the sun set over Rio from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain – very romantic – and figured the election was over, they’d just subbed in Fillon for Juppé. This very nice man (really, a perfectly charming guy) now had it in the bag – I wasn’t a fan of his political platform, but I, too, bought the “propriety” and “integrity” lines, and no one else seemed capable of mobilization. I had to chuckle-cry at the media reactions to him mentioning that he’s both a Gaullist and a Christian – “IS SECULARISM UNDER ASSAULT?!” read the tickers onscreen, and I just wept for America, where people who believe hurricanes are caused by gay marriage get reelected without any issues. My reaction was akin to that of a whiny tween – “but how come Fraaaaance gets a progressive humanistic democracy based on intelligence and reason and not meeeeeee?” (One possible answer to this question is provided a bit further down.) All I’ll say for now is y’all don’t know how good you have it.

Anyway. Back to Fillon. All of a sudden it all came crashing down – first with the revelation that he’d paid his wife half a million, wait, no, almost a million euro for work she may or may not have completed (or even known about?), then with a “communications” “plan” that began with accusations of misogyny, then slander, followed by struggles with chronology and brand new versions emerging every time another surrogate appeared before a media microphone, or roughly twice an hour. It’s carried on since, and fresh manure is scheduled to be dropped toward the middle of next week, unless he drops out beforehand. There’s talk of a nationally televised mea culpa staged for tomorrow night GMT, and you bet I’ll be glued to seven screens in that moment, but… talk about a fall from grace. I honestly can’t see how he can crawl out of this at this stage and continue a campaign built on calls of austerity and belt-tightening (or anything else, really), but there’s no replacement mechanism built into the primary statutes, and there doesn’t seem to be a winnable Plan B. He seems to hold his moral stature in very high regard, so if the pressure really gets to be unbearable, he’ll probably fold at the expense of further ridicule. Some major outlets have already mentioned that Juppé could, theoretically, be persuaded to run (and my earlier prediction could turn out to be right for all the wrong reasons), but I don’t see a good way out of this for anybody.

The English-language press has declared the Fillon situation “business as usual” for French politics, but again, some perspective is useful here. We have a kleptocrat in the White House who watches Finding Dory in the afternoons, gets too tired 25 minutes into a phone call with a lead ally, and replaces the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs with his Nazi BFF. I’m once again tempted to point out that where I come from, France’s current political “crisis” is very, very small potatoes indeed 🙂

It does, however, underscore a crucial point for the Nth time: the French are just better at this whole democracy thing. They’re culturally more demanding of their elites, they’re more philosophical and thus measured in their approach, and they care about platforms, policies, rights, liberties, and FACTS. They care about what their policies say about France as a nation and as a world power, they understand principles and why they’re important, and even the least palatable and most controversial messages are delivered using turns of phrase that demonstrate respect for the intelligence of their electorate. I mentioned to a friend of mine that this is “the most intellectually rigorous WTFery I’ve ever witnessed”, and it’s true – nowhere has a political scandal been publicly litigated with such finesse in phrasing.

All of that aside, all I really want to talk about at this stage is Mr. Emmanuel Macron. He got off to a bit of a slow start, and I figured he’d eventually position himself as a protest vote candidate to get some media exposure and regroup for 2022. I was very, very wrong. I’d been following him with some intensity ever since he joined the government (because I am a straight woman with eyes), but once he warmed up, he became pure magic, and he just gets better every time. Yesterday’s rally in Lyon was absolutely mesmerizing, I’d never seen anything like it – he’s brilliant and he’s just an extraordinary orator, I think the young Obama comparisons are spot on in this regard. I cannot wait to watch him eat the rest of them for dinner at the first big debate, and with the way Fillon’s gone, I think he has a really solid shot at this. My current predictions for the first round stand at Le Pen 24%, Macron 24%, Hamon 18%, Fillon/Juppé 16%, Melenchon 8%, Jadot 3% and crumbs for the rest, with Macron cleaning up the second round neatly. (As I’ve mentioned before, Le Pen doesn’t stand a mathematical chance in the second round, and it’s frustrating to keep seeing this brought up. The very structure of the French electoral system is designed specifically to prevent the fringes from taking over.)

Here’s Macron in Lyon, being perfect:


On the application front, I have an almost-finished CV and an almost-finished lettre de motivation – it’s only missing two sentences. I’ve also been practicing speaking with a very nice French teacher from Poitiers, trying to devote more time to reading the very large number of books I want to finish, and averaging about 6 hours a day on consumption of French media – mostly political talk shows, news broadcasts, podcasts, and other useful things. My comprehension is at 100%, with very rare exceptions, and my expression is rapidly gaining fluidity – I’m living proof that the AJATT method really works. The difference between September and now is indescribable – I don’t even think about the fact that I’m watching something in French anymore, I don’t translate in my head, and I have entire groups of terms I understand implicitly in French without any sort of English equivalent handy. I still have a long way to go before I feel ready to interview, though, and I absolutely need to be speaking more, hours every day, whenever possible. I’ll write a little more about the mechanics behind how I’m gaining fluency next time.

Made in France

The art of being free

“It is above all in the present democratic age that the true friends of liberty and human grandeur must remain constantly vigilant and ready to prevent the social power from lightly sacrificing the particular rights of a few individuals to the general execution of its designs. In such times there is no citizen so obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed, and there are no individual rights so unimportant that they can be sacrificed to arbitrariness with impunity.”

Oof. Tough week. If Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of the above, were alive today, he’d surely be writing a very different book on democracy in America. The New Yorker perfectly summarized my thoughts on the matter, in that way only The New Yorker can, and then two bald eagles got stuck in a drain, as if signaling that nature felt the same way. That’s one thing that we do better than France, actually – we bird well. I mean, look at this majestic beast, look at how disappointed he is:


With that said, I’ll turn to France, which has become a form of self-medication because French political discourse is just so goddamn rational. I’ve long maintained, and I think this latest show of national self-immolation serves to demonstrate, that pluralistic political systems, those with more than two viable parties, provide the exact kinds of checks and balances we in the United States so sorely lack. Pluralistic systems, by their very structure, don’t allow the fringes to rule: they drive home the point that compromises are needed for anything to be achieved, because no single party is strong enough alone. With citizens understanding this implicitly, the trickle-down effects of this political consciousness shape their communication in their communities, schools, and workplaces. Coalitions must be formed, those with opposing views must be brought into the fold, and people must organize.

Citizens of pluralistic systems also recognize that the spectrum of political views does not fit neatly within a semicircle (where we got the terms “right” and “left”) or, even worse, onto a straight continuum; instead, the variety of political positions is a circumference along which people can move, some moving so far to the “right” that they end up on the “left” and vice versa. In order to keep people in your segment, you’ve got to continue working for them. This is a demonstration of democratic ideals in their purest sense.

Beyond that, people know that their vote matters, and even beyond that, they get to select from a varied political landscape, allowing everyone to feel good about their vote – this is why turnout is always higher than for elections in which your only options are “yes” or “no”.

Consider this: in April 2002, Jacques Chirac was up for reelection, running primarily against the Socialist contender, Lionel Jospin. As the first round drew to a close, a shocked France discovered that Chirac had received some 5.6 million votes, or 19.88%, and the runner-up was actually the far-right Front National candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an individual who openly espouses neo-Nazi ideology, with 4.8 million votes, or 16.86%. Jospin only got 4.6 million, or 16.18%, leaving him out of the second round. Turnout, it should be noted, was 71.6%, or 29.4 million voters.

Two weeks later, in the second round, Chirac got 82% of the vote – some 25.5 million people banded together to stop the extreme right from gaining access to the Élysée. Le Pen got 5.5 million, or 17.79%. Turnout was 79.71% at 32.8 million voters. This means that not only did Chirac retain all of his votes and get all of Jospin’s, but that he also picked up an impressive 15 million on top of that, including a large portion of the 3 million who stayed home for the first round. The results of the first round were a clear signal to the French political system that people were deeply unhappy and were directing themselves toward the fringes, but in just two weeks, the collective horror of what a Le Pen presidency could mean drove 20 million people to the voting booths to cast votes in favor of a candidate they’d previously voted against. That, to me, is the real story. Two weeks. We had 18 months. And yet.

There are more recent examples. During the December 2015 regional elections in France, where voters selected representatives of regional councils, the Front National, now a relatively tame version of itself, handily won the first round of votes nationwide, with 6 million (27.73%) votes cast. Center-right coalition candidates got 5.7 million (26.6%), while the Socialist-left got 23%, or 5 million and some change. These elections were held a mere three weeks after the November 13 attacks across Paris, so the result is understandable. However, what happened next bore an uncanny resemblance to the spring of 2002: in regions where the Socialists were left out of the second round, they called upon their supporters to vote for the right and vice versa. As a result, the center-right got 40% of the vote, with 10 million ballots cast, and the Socialists got 7.2 million, or 28.86%. Most significantly, the FN were kept out of the regional presidencies, and turnout was 4 million higher for the second round to achieve exactly this. The FN decried – not without reason – this so-called “UMPS” tactic, claiming the right and left were colluding (which they were), but it worked. The kicker for us, sadly, is that the modern-day American GOP makes even Marine Le Pen look positively Merkelesque.

It seems likely that Alain Juppé will be France’s next president. Last week, before the world collapsed (note: I went to an event with Ambassador Araud earlier this year, and he’s got a fantastic sense of humor), I watched the second debate of the French center-right primaries with great interest – a lineup of intelligent, respectful individuals conducting themselves in a dignified manner while focusing on what’s really at stake here: policies. Plans. Proposals. Solutions. Analyses. All of the things we never got to discuss out here in the wilderness. Juppé’s October appearance on L’Émission Politique is also an excellent example of the same: in the first 22 minutes, he managed to cover the problems of domestic violence against women, climate change, sustainable development, and youth unemployment. I feel I have to remind you that this is a right-wing candidate.

So what does France get that we don’t? I think it goes back to two things: the pluralistic landscape, of course, which promotes healthy debate, political engagement, and policies over individual candidates, and French history – specifically, its length. America’s achieved some great things in its 200-some years of existence, but its lack of historical memory leads its people to think that you can just “break” the “system” and start over, since that’s how this all came to be, after all. There are no historical reference points to demonstrate that destruction can actually be very counter-productive. French history, on the other hand, makes this point very clearly, as do countless other examples of once-great empires. Too bad we didn’t listen.