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.

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