Are you an American who doesn't understand that there can be more than two political parties, or a North Korean who doesn't know the word "election"? Well welcome to the French Election Dummies Guide! This will give you a quick overview of how the French election system works, who the candidates are, what issues France is facing, and more.
1. The Way Things Work. The French presidential election is based on securing a majority of the popular vote. In order for a candidate to be on the ballot, they must have received the support/signatures of 500 elected officials around France. There is of course a finite number of elected officials in France, but this still allows for the potential of dozens of candidates in the first round of voting. Last election held a record 16 candidates, this year could have even more.
If after the first round of voting, a single candidate has received over 50% of the vote, the election is over and (s)he is declared the winner. If no one secures a majority, there is a runoff between the top two finishing candidates. This ensures that one of those two will win a majority in the second round, and that winner becomes the next President of France.
Although this system might seem fair (majority wins, no electoral college...), the runoff system can allow unpopular candidates to make it to the second round. In the 2002 election, the left-wing vote was split amongst a host of candidates, leaving only center-right Jacques Chirac and far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round. This election, both sides of the political spectrum have more or less coalesced around two principal candidates, nevertheless, there are still a multitude of other candidates eager to share a slice of the vote.
2. Where do all the candidates come from? Unlike in the US, where elections are dominated by only two political parties, France is rich in parties representing every band of the political spectrum. The current ruling party in France is the UMP, in English, the Union for a Popular Movement. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has basically been running for the past several years, is their nominee. The second largest party is the Socialist Party. In November, after several party debates, they held a primary that nominated Segolene Royal with over 60% of the vote. If she were elected, she would become the first female president of France.
Barring any surprise, these two candidates will win the first round and face off in the second round of voting. However, there still are a couple of other candidates worth noting. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate for the far-right National Front, has been polling around 13% of the vote in the first round. He caused a major upset last election by making it into the runoff, and there is no doubt that he will attempt the same again. A final candidate of great importance is Francois Bayrou. Bayrou represents the small but moderate Union for French Democracy party (UDF), and is polling in third place with a strong 19%. One of his main issues, along with Le Pen, has been the stranglehold that the two major parties have on the country and the media's attention.
3. Issues. France is a rich country in a very stable part of the world, but there are a host of serious issues that each candidate will address during the presidential campaign.
- Economy. The French economy has experience sluggish growth and high unemployment for a long time running. Topics rife with debate include the strict labor laws, mandated 35-hour workweek, federal deficit, and how to confront the multifaceted challenge of globalization.
- Immigration. France has experienced a deluge of immigrants, many from North Africa, and also has a growing Muslim population. Since even before last years riots, political leaders have been rolling out their prescriptions on dealing with everything from entrance to assimilation. Issues include stricter controls, affirmative action like programs, legalization of undocumented foreigners, and the relationship between a growing religious Muslim population in a very secular France.
- Foreign Policy. The French have been facing somewhat of a self-identity problem since campaign against the US at the beginning of the Iraq War and the rejection of the government supported EU constitution. Both of the two major candidates favor a stronger EU and more cordial relations with Israel, but their views on the United States are polar opposites.
- Environment. Many French politicians have found that campaigning on the environment is a safe and popular thing to do. Bolstered by new reports and attention on the threats faced by global warming, manying candidates are proposing new measures to protect the environment without creating unreasonable hardships.
- And many more...