One could argue that fragmentation on the Left caused Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, to miss the run-off, leaving France to choose between Jacques Chirac, an incumbent already rejected by over 80% of voters, and Far Right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, a sort of French David Duke without the phony polish.
Others will argue that the fact that all the candidates on the Left together carried less than 44% of the vote suggests that Jospin himself is to blame for the situation. His personality is uninspiring, he ran a dreadful campaign, etc.
However, the most significant fact of the French election is that with sixteen candidates to choose from, almost a quarter of the votes cast were for what you and I would call right-wing nut candidates (including Le Pen).
So here are the important totals: Left, 44%, Right 32%, Extreme Right, 24%.
The Right, led by incumbent President Jacques Chirac, will distance itself nobly from the Far Right in the run-off election, in the interests of preserving national "honor." But the fact is that Chirac will owe his presidency to the Far Right no less than does George W. Bush. Take the extreme Right out of the equation and the Left outnumbers the Right.
As for the French Left, is there another democracy in which three different Trotskyist candidates for president could combine to pull 11% of the vote, as they did in France? Two of them outpolled the Communist candidate, Robert Hue, who got 3.5%.
The French Greens significantly bettered all previous performances in French presidential elections. They had never broken 4% before, and Noel Mamere, the Green standard bearer, got 5.4%.
On the one hand, that's great. On the other, it was only good enough for a sixth place finish, behind Arlette Laguiller, one of the Trotskyists. Not particularly encouraging in an election in which everyone made the Greens' case for them by complaining about the blandness and lack of differentiation between the two top candidates, Chirac and Jospin, an election in which 64% of the voters clearly wanted someone else, not to say anyone else.
Chirac will win the run-off in a landslide. The Greens and other Left-leaning parties have thrown their support to him to "stop" Le Pen. The only suspense lies in whether Le Pen will pick up or lose support. Only if he draws more than 25% of the vote can it be argued that the Far Right is really on the rise in France. Best guesses put him at around 22%.
Following the run-off election France will enjoy seven more years of being governed by a man 4 out of 5 voters did not want, a candidate seen as the lesser of sixteen evils, a man whose re-election only serves to postpone the indictment on corruption charges widely regarded as inevitable when he leaves office, assuming he ever does (if Le Pen is the French David Duke, Jacques Chirac may be the French Edwin Edwards).
Suppose Jospin and not Chirac had been the survivor? Few people in France would feel significantly happier about the outcome. The two men's policies were indistinguishable for the most part.
From an American perspective all this may look like nothing more than the predictable perils of a multi-party system. Or so we may tell ourselves from time to time. Yet our two-party system offered George W. Bush and Al Gore, if anything an even more boring pair than Chirac and Jospin.
I shall sit under the wych elm and ponder three questions tonight:
Is the chief virtue of our "two-party" system the fact that it obscures the extent to which our own political life is dominated by the Far Right?
Is the French election emblematic of things to come in American elections?
What is there about the current state of democracy, in whatever form, with however many parties, that continues to render significant change unlikely, when such large majorities clearly want it?
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