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PETER WICKHAM: The French vote


PETER WICKHAM: The French vote

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IT IS CURIOUS that in the same week the United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May announced an early snap election, the French voted in the first round of their presidential poll. 

The French electoral process is naturally less familiar to us in the Anglophone Caribbean; however, the electoral system and this particular election should intrigue us for several reasons. Significantly, the process is reflective of a polity that is one of the oldest republics in the world, which attempts to ensure one of the highest levels of democracy.

The election of the French president is therefore reflective of the finest democratic traditions as s/he is the most powerful functionary in the government who names the prime minister, government and assents to all legislation.

In contradistinction to the UK and Caribbean systems where our leader is selected by persons we elect, the French directly elect their president and the system carries a guarantee that the victorious president must gain the support of 50 per cent of the electorate, which invariably requires the “run-off” vote that takes place on May 7. The idea of the “run-off” was recently discussed in Trinidad and Tobago where Kamla Persad-Bissessar unsuccessfully attempted to introduce this feature to constituency contests.

It has the potential to enhance the democratic process by acknowledging the extent to which voting preferences are often nuanced and not accommodated in our first-past-the-post-system. We vote once and only for a constituency representative. In France, however, voters have the opportunity to support a first and or second choice for president, which is reflective of contemporary voter realities which are often not binary.

The political conditions which surround this election in France make it even more significant to both the French and European voter. This president will inherit a relatively  strong economy which, at just shy of Euro 2.5 trillion, is the second largest in the Europeon Union (behind Germany). France, however, faces unprecedented security issues reflected in the November Paris attacks and the Charlie Hebdo shooting, both of which have been central election issues favouring the ultra-right. In addition to these issues of national security, the next president will need to consider seriously the implications of the potential Brexit.

The permutations of these two issues are complex; however, the simplified presumption is that the terrorist attacks have either been inspired by Islam or a reaction to Islam which can be tackled in one of two ways. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen supports a Trump-like approach to immigration which is also consistent with the UKIP/Farage solution that effectively seeks to close borders.  Consistent with this approach, Le Pen also supports the idea of a Frexit and promises a referendum, which would almost certainly signal the demise of the EU, were this virus of insularity to take root on the continent.

The leading candidate, Emmanuel Macron could not be any more the polar opposite of Le Pen. He understands the issues but seeks solutions within the context of Europe which he enthusiastically supports. He plans to keep France within the EU, while taking an enlightened approach to security. Macron is neither racist, misogynistic nor insular and is therefore easily distinguishable from characters like Le Pen, Trump and Farage who all appeal to these latent and backward traits that have come to the fore in the US and UK. He nonetheless shares one characteristic in that he is a highly unconventional politician and like Trump is to some extent reflective of a populist rejection of the establishment.

Macron was formerly Minister of the Economy under Francois Hollande but quit to form the political movement “En Marche” which has catapulted him to the front of the race for the presidency. This organisation is barely one year old and is neither left nor right wing but instead presents itself as a progressive social-liberal organisation which is more a reflection of Macron, the person, than any philosophical underpinning. Certainly, the rejection of the traditional political establishment is as novel in France as it was in the United States since in both cases the emergence of a popular candidate who is not associated with a major party is unknown to modern politics.

Macron scored a significant lead on his closest competitor in last week’s election and is projected to easily win next week’s run-off, which would make him France’s youngest president ever at 39 years old. Unsurprisingly, he has captured the interest of several young people who were previously inclined to be a political which also demonstrates a reversal of a global trend towards cynicism in favour of a candidate with a refreshingly progressive stance.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]