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The Citizen

Putting mass-market elections on stage

By Amelie de Montchalin

Six months after the French Presidential elections, observing the American Presidential election gives one a feeling of much more preparedness and way less spontaneity. In a sense, the American society likes to put the same famous mass-market play on stage every four years.

The script is easy to follow as it focuses on a few topics only and places difficult issues out of the theater (such as climate change this time). Daily, the plot changes slightly to suit and please the “demographics” of the audience. Also, so as to comfort the spectators, the set and the costumes show no eccentricity from the last shows. Only the second characters (such as the wives and the kids) seem to awaken some curiosity. Much advertisement is done on the play and numerous predictable critics spend hours dissecting the compliance of each of the characters with written choreography.

In France, elections are organized to look more authentic – which does not mean that they are. The larger number of candidates (ten in the first round last April) leads to a higher complexity and variety in the issues debated. Moreover, given French collective faith in individual judgment, voters like to think they are not predictable and that they cannot be “reduced” to their demographics. For instance, a French candidate who would openly rely as much as an American one on spin doctors, local polling data and personalized communication would be called a manipulator, where this is seen as the hallmark of an efficient politician in the US.

This American political tradition undoubtedly leads to more pragmatism and simplicity. Here, political polarization does not mean systematic opposition. In France, two candidates would never say openly that they agree on something – whereas Obama and Romney had no trouble in doing so, preferring to spend time on helping voters to see where they differ. In France, everybody seeks thus to sound unique – without fearing to be ridiculous in doing so. In fact to prove his originality of view, we had one candidate explain (in all seriousness) that industrialization of the Moon was a goal to pursue to improve our economic situation.

The US pragmatism goes further: citizens and voters do not feel ashamed making explicit their individual interests and their choices. Bumper stickers and garden signs do not exist in France, where voters want to have the freedom to keep their vote secret. No company would ever take the risk to openly lobby for one or another candidate – even though they clearly try to weigh in on the platforms. No newspaper would say explicitly who they support – even though this is not difficult to assess reading their columns.

This transparency here is the consequence of a wide privatization of the public debate. Elections set the stage for a major battle of influence.  Not to really improve the “common good” (this is the dream of French voters) but to make the future reality more helpful to carry on one’s business. Being French, I thus feel some discomfort in seeing “Big Money” orchestrating the democratic play Americans like so much.