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French Lessons
Tim Francis-Wright

Last week's presidential primary election in France represents a true debacle for the European Left. The Socialist prime minister of France, Lionel Jospin, lost second place to Jean-Marie Le Pen, an avowed racist. How this unseemly result occurred eerily echoes the 2000 American presidential election. There are lessons here for both the Democrats and the Greens in their preparations for the 2004 election.

In one week, French voters will either re-elect Jacques Chirac or install Le Pen as their new president. Most observers expected Chirac, the current French president, to emerge as one of the two finalists from the primary election. But Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin was expected to defeat Le Pen, whose views about foreigners are infamously racist and xenophobic.

In many respects, the French presidential election resembled a free-for all. It featured 16 candidates, from Trotskyist (Workers' Struggle Party) to social democratic (Socialist party) to ecological (Greens) to conservative (Rally for the Republic) to essentially fascist (National Front). The Left as a whole did not do all that badly. The results show that Chirac won the election with just under 20% of the vote, and that Le Pen edged Jospin by under one percent of the votes cast. Left-wing parties won almost 38 percent of the votes, with another 5 percent going to the Greens.

The parallels between the French and American elections are necessarily limited. The United States has not had to endure a serious presidential candidate as unabashedly racist as Le Pen since the campaign of George Wallace in 1968. Also, American elections seldom have as many as four serious candidates. Most importantly, the French president has much less political power than the American president, albeit more power than many heads of state in many parliamentary democracies.

The parallels that do exist, however, are quite instructive. First, the French election points out the folly of casting protest votes in a close election. Surely, many of the votes for the left-wing splinter parties in France were cast in protest of the weak tea offered by the Socialists in their quest for a broader electoral base. But those votes helped to ensure Le Pen's place on the final ballot. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader ran ambitious campaigns in many states in which Al Gore and George Bush were quite evenly matched. The Gore campaign can justifiably argue that Nader cost Gore the electoral votes of states such as Florida and New Hampshire.

A second lesson from the French results is the risk of alienating a party's natural constituency. Jospin faced one of the same criticisms that Al Gore faced in 2000, that he was becoming less and less distinguishable from his main rival to his right. Gore agreed with Bush in 2000 that income tax cuts were both desirable and necessary, and that the death penalty was a fundamentally valid punishment. Jospin agreed with Chirac that cracking down on crime and illegal immigration was vitally important. Agreement with conservatives on taxes, the death penalty, crime, or immigration cedes to them the battle of ideas in an election. In France, the candidate who talked most about being tough on crime and immigration was Le Pen, so Jospin moved the political debate to a realm that benefitted both of his main opponents. What could have been a referendum on the accomplishments of his Socialist government became an opportunity for Le Pen.

Jospin managed to alienate a significant number of his traditional supporters. Some of them stayed home: the 74 percent turnout rate in France was the lowest in over four decades. Some of them, as noted above, voted for minor parties. Some even voted for Chirac or Le Pen. In 2000, some Democrats voted for Nader, not because they believed Nader's solecism that Bush and Gore were not different, but because they believed that Bush and Gore were not different enough. Gore alienated some liberals because he got more conservative on many issues as the campaign progressed.

A third lesson from the French election is that moving left or right on the political spectrum is less important than mobilizing voters. Both Democrats and Greens should take this lesson to heart. Lionel Jospin's doomed move to the right occurred in a country in which a 74 percent turnout rate is abnormally low. In the United States, by contrast, a 50 percent turnout rate is normal. Any move to the right by the Democratic Party risks losing left-wing Democrats to gain centrist and conservative votes. But the United States in particular has millions of potential voters, individuals who span the political spectrum. If the Democrats had recruited 1000 more voters in Florida, or 8000 in New Hampshire, then Gore would have won in spite of Nader's potential role as spoiler.

In political science, economics has inspired a burgeoning literature on models of voting that place voters on a political line or plane and determine how their preferences determine their voting habits. (In theory, the "median voter" should determine most elections.) These models do an adequate job of explaining some voting in legislatures, but they do poorly in the wider world of voting among the citizenry. Voters are much more complex than the equations in the models of political scientists. Their votes depend on the perceived competence of the candidates; on the issue or issues that matter to them; on the commercials that they have seen, read, and heard; and on a host of incomplete and imperfect information. If they are too confused, or too distracted, or too alienated, then they may not vote at all.

After his third-place finish, Jospin announced his retirement from French politics. His Socialists are expected to lose badly in the upcoming parliamentary elections. By contrast, recent polls show the Democrats leading the Republicans in upcoming congressional elections, in spite of the continuing popularity of President Bush. Democrats in Washington should not feel desperate right now.

The Democratic Party now has two recent examples of overly conservative campaigns. Gore, a notable environmentalist, missed an opportunity in 2000 to co-opt the Green Party platform. Instead, he moved to the right and lost votes to Nader. Jospin, an accomplished prime minister, concentrated his campaign on the need for more law and order, essentially proclaiming a weaker version of his opponents' platforms. In 2002 and 2004, the Democrats will need to improve upon their performance in 2000. Moving further to the center will fail. Working to reclaim votes that it lost to the Greens has a better chance of success.

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