French Politics

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Parisians, so the stereotype goes, are incredibly fond of a few key things: Wine, food, cigarettes, amour, and politics. Though the first four can be debated (well, sort of), the last seems to be universally true – especially these days, as we head into French election season. To keep you in the loop (and prepare you for any Parisian dinner parties you may attend), what follows is our crash-course to the political events that are on the lips of every Parisian we know.

The French presidential election is, in theory, a pretty straightforward undertaking: The President is elected to a 5-year term by universal suffrage. In the case that no candidate has a clear majority of votes, the top two candidates are selected and move onto a second round of voting. Once elected, the President is charged with appointing a Prime Minister who, along with the Parliament, is responsible for most of the country’s legislative activity. Though the presence of the Prime Minister and Parliament limits the President’s internal power, the President’s greatest influence is in the field of foreign policy. Unlike the U.S., French law places no limit on the number of terms a President can serve.

The upcoming elections, scheduled for the spring of 2007, have nearly 10 candidates on the Presidential ballot. Though there have been a few soft-spoken rumors that Chirac will run again (a possibility that’s looking more and more unlikely), the clear front-runners (and topics of most any conversation we overhear these days) are Nicolas Sarkozy of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party (PS). According to Le Parisien’s preliminary polls, the two are exactly tied with a 31% approval rating.

Sarkozy, France’s current Minister of the Interior, has served as the leader of the UMP, a political party of the center-right, since the fall of 2004. As the Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy has made his mark on the current government with his strict anti-immigration and law-and-order policies, as well as proposed economic reforms that call for fairer taxation systems and a reduction in the budget deficit, among other things. Sarkozy’s internal crime policies, which were most clearly highlighted during the riots of 2005, have been popular with some but have also alienated others who feel that his proposals jeopardize civil rights and liberties.

Royal currently serves as the President of the region of Poitou-Charentes and member of the National Assembly. As a major player in France’s Socialist Party, Royal is known for her honest critiques of many left-wing policies, among them juvenile delinquency (again brought up by the riots of last year) and the 35-hour work week. In the past, she has made waves with her environmentalist stance and the significant changes she has implementation in the French education system and social affairs, such as the creation of paternity leave. Though Royal has been generally commended for her refreshing approach and unwillingness to engage in petty party politics, some fear that her background lacks the meatiness of Sarkozy’s, and that her appointment would be due more to her gender than her suitability for office.

Regardless of the particulars of each candidate, no one is blind to the fact that the next President will have a barrage of issues to contend with, many of which are being pushed to the forefront of the election debates and media coverage. One of the most pressing is France’s current unemployment rate, which is hovering near 10%, and was a catalyst for the civil (mostly student-based) unrest last spring. Law and order, as evidenced by the spurts of violence of last year, remains a prime concern for many, and raises questions about the poor suburbs surrounding the Paris city center. To add to the mix, the recent Clearstream scandal (which implicated a number of high-ranking French politicians in various cases of forgery) is still being investigated, and any new findings could have a major influence on the upcoming polls.

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