Foreign politics are so much cooler than ours

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

Insanity, cold sweats, nausea… While all these may seem to be symptoms more akin to rabies than functioning democracy, all are potential results from the recent French election, perhaps to the misfortune of the country.

In France’s eminently interesting presidential election on May 6, conservative Nicholas Sarkozy took on socialist Segolene Royal. The election proved to be of equal interest to the French populace as it was to me, as 85 per cent of those eligible to vote exercised their right. The result of this outstanding electoral turnout was 53 per cent in favour of Sarkozy, with the remaining 47 per cent in support of Royal.

This is where it gets ominous for me. there has been a tremendous amount written about this victory, giving Sarkozy a clear mandate to implement his program. Indeed, it has been mentioned that the electoral results imply that unions–opposed to some of Sarkozy’s planned reforms–have no right to stand in his way.

This is absurd. Surely a six per cent margin is not enough to legitimize the disenfranchisement of the rest of the populace. Consider that, in reaction to his election, violent protests set off throughout the country. Paris alone was witness to a 2,000-person mob that had to be dispersed by tear gas. Further, I wonder whether the defeat of Segolene Royal may in part be due to the fact she would have been the first female president in the history of the Republic. It seems entirely conceivable this fact may be at least partly responsible for her electoral defeat. Clearly this is not a simple case of a nation rallying behind a single party or leader. Rather these election results–far from the resounding victory they have been reported by some to be–are an indication that the populace of the country is split fairly evenly. As such, compromises must be made.

The biggest problem is the positions adopted and elucidated by these two individuals are effectively irreconcilable. Perhaps the most contentious of the policies expected to be brought forth by the new president-elect is the proposed set of limitations on immigration. This issue provided the biggest spark during the campaign, so it is reasonable to expect it will generate a lot of discussion when it is implemented. Furthermore, shortly before the 2005 rioting that ravaged France, Sarkozy was criticized for describing certain segments of Parisian youth–notably of immigrant origin–as “rabble.” From this point on, he has continually espoused the view that France should not be “a home for all the world’s miseries.” Sarkozy’s stance on this issue, and the violent reaction that it has already provoked throughout France, is menacing for the solidarity of the country. It is estimated that there are between three and six million North African immigrants currently living in France, so the urgency of the issue is beyond question.

Certainly one of the most interesting of Sarkozy’s proposed moves is the cancellation of taxes on overtime. By doing so, he hopes to bolster the admittedly tepid French economy. This is a significant departure from French tradition of the institutionalized 35-hour work week. In addition to this move, he has also said he will reduce taxes by 4 per cent and significantly reduce inheritance tax. It must be admitted that these reforms are probably to the benefit of France. Despite this, one must wonder if they will also prove to be quite divisive as they are in such stark contrast to the recent history of the country.

Another of his planned reforms, and certainly the scariest from my point of view, is that, along with imposing minimum sentences for repeat offenders, Sarkozy has proposed to increase the severity of punishments meted out to juveniles. Considering that it is largely the youth that have violently reacted against the president-elect, this policy is sure to encourage even more opposition.

Finally, there are also the concerns about his stated opposition to the accession of Turkey into the European Union. Without delving too deeply into such a complex issue, I feel it safe to say this will be seen as a negative initiative by the large number of immigrants in France who will almost certainly view this as a quasi-racist move designed to keep a Muslim nation out of “Christian Europe.”

Whatever the reason for the French election being resolved in the manner it has, it is a clear indication of two things: first, the French people have, by turning out to the polls in droves, lent hope to the possibility of people having interest in electoral politics. Secondly, France is heading for a period which seems likely to be characterized by immense rifts dividing the populace.

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