Sunday, May 06, 2007

The French Presidential Roulette

In a few hours from now, French electors will be voting in the second round of their presidential election. In the first round, the field was narrowed to two candidates, the Right Wing Nicolas Sarkozy and the socialist Ségolène Royal. The remarkable thing about that round was the huge turnout — 83 percent; quite a contrast with the 2002 election, when there was a high proportion of abstentions.

The media spin doctors have of course gone on an overdrive, billing it as the battle between the glamorous, intelligent and articulate Royal and the hard nosed, no-nonsense Sarkozy. The glamour angle (after the rather boring faces of Chirac and Mitterand) provides a good copy for all readers. Both the leaders are born in the post-World War era and do not carry the baggage that the previous generation carries. Both were disliked in their parties as being overambitious and under-qualified upstarts but they have managed to capture the imagination of the French public.

This has been one of the most widely discussed elections that France has seen; probably a lot to do with the fact that it has never elected a woman as its head of state. The fact that Ms. Royal is not only relatively young (53 yrs) but also quite attractive has added colour to the elections. Sarkozy is also young (52 yrs), ambitious and a pragmatist and has a sharply divided opinion in France.

A few months back, photos of Royal frolicking in a beach in a bikini were widely circulated in the press. The French press is quite finicky about publishing such photos of leaders but it still found its way into the papers. But the visuals have not impeded her chances in any way. Stories have also been circulated about Sarkozy’s wife missing during his campaign. All this gossip has managed to bring about life in the rather boring world of politics.

However, what I find the most interesting aspects of this French election are the voter turnout and the woman/mother angle of Royal.

France has the fifth largest population in Europe at 63 million. Its citizens enjoy free healthcare and education. Those in work enjoy a relatively high standard of living and five weeks' statutory paid holiday. It is the most popular country in the world among tourists, receiving about 75 million visitors a year and has the third largest income in the world from tourism.

But France's economy has grown more slowly than any other developed country in the world. In 2006, its 2% growth was the worst in Europe. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates - 9.8% - of any European country. Public finances are coming under strain from the pension system and rising healthcare costs and the tax burden is one of the highest in Europe, at nearly 50% of GDP in 2005.

France has long had a high level of immigration. There are now 4.9m immigrants in France and the French Muslim population is estimated to be the largest in western Europe. Many live in the suburbs in low-standard social housing; unemployment is high among these communities and crime is a serious problem here. In France, the Presidency of Jacques Chirac has lasted many years, and in the past three or four years there have been increasing signs of discontent with the political state of the country.

France has suffered from serious economic problems, and high unemployment, particularly among young people. This has led to racial tensions in cities, where citizens from ethnic minorities have become ghettos of the unemployed and deprived. The high turnout of voters is a clear reflection of a widespread wish for change.

Royal is an unwed mother of four kids and the father is a prominent leader in the Socialist Party. This would in many places not go down well with the public but this is probably more acceptable in France and maybe Europe. It’s a point worth considering if US would be willing to accept such a leader. A country where abortion is an election issue may not necessarily appreciate an unwed mother as a Head of State - a “moral” Bush or an “immoral” Royal???

In India, Royal would stand no chance at all. The conservatives would scoff at her unwed mother status while the liberals may fume at the idea of four kids. If Richard Gere can attract imprisonment for kissing Shilpa Shetty, wonder what would happen if an unwed mother (not even of the Gandhi family) stands for elections?

The idea of a woman Head of state is not new to Asia, with the likes of Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Bandarnaike, Gloria Arroyo and Shiekh Hasina covering a great deal of the political spectrum in their respective countries. Ofcourse, the fact that they belonged to prominent political families was an important point in their favour.

Ms Royal has had to do a tremendous fight to emerge as a leader within her party itself, especially with repeated sexist attacks on her personal life. She’s, however, fought against many of the odds and emerged as the leading contender for the role. Politically, she’s been accused of being naïve, with little understanding of foreign policy.

She has also been projected as a bit of a lightweight when compared to Sarkozy. While Sarkozy has won points for his assertive style, his demeanour has not exactly gone down too well with the minorities and immigrants. But as all media stories say, France seems all set to elect a president it admires but does not widely like (Latest opinion polls indicate a nine poll lead for Sarkozy).

All the rhetoric dished out in the last few months will finally culminate in that final knockout blow to one of the candidates; however, whatever the result, the high voter turnout is an abject lesson for all democracies – something that the Labour party in UK may have to keep in mind, considering the rather poor opinion that the British public now holds of Blair and Co.

I have not done any analysis on the two candidates to suggest who is better for us in India. The experts in CNN and NDTV would probably have brought about this story. Often wondered whether all this analysis even matters; after all, it is the bureaucracy that runs democracies and not the political class, especially when the leadership has no great vision. Nevertheless, you can read more on the policy differences between the two candidates here, which, eventually may not make too much of a difference.

As per the French constitution, there cannot be any media coverage in the last 48 hours of a poll. So, all analysis in France has come to a standstill and the public is keeping its fingers crossed to witness what could probably one of the closest fights to the hot seat in France. Will it be the hard-nosed Sarky or the softie Sego?

Ofcourse, some things never change. So, there are constant media references to Royal's sex, physical attributes, wardrobe, marital status etc. While Royal has managed to use the looks and gender factor to her advantage, there is always a lurking suggestion from the media hinting at the idea of a "woman president". Does a female Head of State necessarily mean a country turning progressive? Can we judge women politicians by their policies alone, keeping aside gender politics?

P.S. Incidentally, India also has a role to play in the elections. There are 5,534 registered French voters of Pondicherry who would be casting their ballot in this poll. Talk about globalization!!!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting and quite surprising that you should have followed the elections so closely and analysed the political climate in France (Indian media and Indian rarely seem to get beyond the US). Just some observations on the closing paragraph.Having lived in Europe (not France though, just visited twice) for two years, I felt that while women there do not have any fear of harassment of any sort in public, the expectations that society has of them is still very much ''gendered'' ie: if you have these and these body parts you will do such and such things and NOT these or those things. Yes, the areas that the average European or French woman can do things that a man can do in her culture are much more than that for the average Indian woman...go swimming in public or smoke or have sex outside marriage. But what I felt is, there is again, a social expectation about how her conduct will ''come together'' or ''form a pattern'' when weighed in relation to something like holding public office. So if you consider someone like Thatcher or Queen Elizabeth who are in the public eye for office, they are either no-nonsense or plain and dignified, but not having fun on the beach. They are in some way, carefully de-gendered from what are considered more womanish conduct. The paradox is, Europeans like slender, mild cigars for women who smoke, and low-cut, revealing dresses on them... ie: they have 'norms' and 'expectations' of the womanly woman, and to be on male turf (politics), you kind of need to shake all that off.
    Something like Gauriamma being just right for Kerala politics :D

    So no, a female Head of State does not necessarily mean a country turning progressive...its plain dyanastic rule in South Asia that gets them there, for instance. And parochial, hapless voters.