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French elections

05/08/07 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin followed the recent French elections closely, and he has these observations on the process.

(MARTIN) On Sunday, the French elected their new president, Nicolas Sarkozy. But more importantly, by turning out in massive numbers to vote, they proved that their democracy is alive and well.

The French elect their president in two rounds. In the first round, they vote for the candidate they like best from a wide range of parties: the Socialists, the centrists, the Radicals, the Alternatives, the Communists, the Greens, the Movement for France, the anti-immigrant National Front, and even the Hunting, Fishing, Nature & Traditions Party. In the second round, they vote against the candidate they like least - sort of like when you cheer for anybody against the Yankees in the World Series.

With a full spectrum of parties going into the election, the French had a lot to debate this year: genetically modified food, school choice, nuclear power plants, retirement, crime, unemployment, and even the future of Europe. And if, in the past, voters had complained that members of the classe politique were all the same, this time the last two candidates stood in stark contrast to each other.

Last week, the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal attacked the winner Nicolas Sarkozy by comparing him to President Bush and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. Sarkozy is considered atlantiste and liberal, meaning that he's more sympathetic to the United States and free-market economics. Meanwhile, Royal promised to protect the French from globalization and to extend the current welfare state.

Then, Sarkozy's ally, the Minister of Defense, Michele Alliot-Marie, said that France needed someone "...who wouldn't change (her) ideas as often as her skirt." It was a cheap shot from one woman to another, and it made me wonder if France really was ready for its first woman president. Afterwards, during their two an a half hour debate, Royal accused Sarkozy of being insensitive to incidents of women police officers being raped on their way home from work. He retaliated and mocked her plan to provide escorts, saying she'd need a new army of civil servants to protect her civil servants.

But the most important question turned out to be "What does it mean to be French?" Both candidates agreed that French citizenship comes with responsibilities as well as rights, and that the French needed to take more pride in their country. Royal said that every French household should have a tricolor flag to display on national holidays. Sarkozy said France needs a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity and that hard work needs to become a French value again.

There have been some tough words and some hot debates in this election, but the French should be proud of their democracy. The debates focused on programs, not ideology, and the reporting followed the candidates, not their campaign funds and political strategists. What's more, nearly eighty-five percent of eligible French voters cast a ballot in both rounds of voting.

Come what may, these elections prove that democracy in France is vibrant and widespread. I hope we Americans do as well when we elect our next President in 2008....

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.
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