Say what you will about France (and Americans typically do....anyone remember "Freedom Fries"?), but these people know how to elect a president. For one thing, as various online pundits pointed out yesterday after the landslide win by establishment centrist Emmanuel Macron, their entire campaign, including the runoff and even parliamentary elections next month, is taking place a shorter time period than one lousy special election for Congress in one district in Georgia. Imagine how much of your sanity might be recovered if our crazy 2016 election had been compressed from nearly two years to just five or six weeks!
More importantly, in selecting Macron, the French decided they should have a leader who speaks in complete sentences (one wag said Macron even speaks better English than the president of the United States...ouch), and who doesn't wake up at 4 a.m. to tweet out conspiracy theories, or go out to promote his private for-profit golf courses every weekend. I mean, help us remember what that would be even like.
OK, the real significance in the French election -- which got way more American press coverage than any other election Over There that I can remember in my lifetime -- was who wasn't elected: Marine Le Pen of the ultra-nationalist and racist National Front. True, Le Pen's nearly 34 percent showing -- while a blowout of more-than McGovern/Goldwater proportions -- came close to doubling what the far-right party in France has garnered previously. But the election of a rational, pro-Europe centrist in Macron seemed to provoke an outpouring of relief and even joy among most Americans -- at least the ones who don't tweet out memes involving Pepe the Frog.
Still, Macron's election had people wondering why France rejected the extremist and America...didn't. As POTUS #45 might have put it: People don’t realize, you know, President Trump, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a President Trump? Why could that one not have been worked out?
On Sunday, I saw two threads that explain a lot about what France gets right about its politics that we didn't.
1) Unlike the United States, France works to maximize voter participation. As the writer Ari Berman noted Sunday, some French were bemoaning that the race between the cosmopolitan Macron and the nationalist Le Pen got just 74 percent voter turnout, the lowest since 1969. But no U.S. election has had 74 percent turnout since the 19th Century!
What gives? Well, one factor is pretty obvious: America holds its election on a workday, Tuesday, while the French election is held on a Sunday, when few people have conflicts with work, school or other mid-week activities. There's nothing stopping the United States from joining most of the civilized world and voting on a weekend or a holiday -- other than tradition, or maybe a sense that the powers that be don't really want everyone to vote. How else does one explain voter ID and other laws enacted in mostly GOP legislatures to restrict voting -- limits on democracy that other nations like France would consider, well, fou? It's almost like America doesn't the working poor (who are hustling on Tuesdays to make ends meet) or the young or the elderly or non-whites to vote. Which can, ahem, skew the outcome.
2) French conservatives would rather do the right thing than win. U.S. conservatives? No so much. One striking event in the French election, which was critical to Le Pen's ultimate defeat, was that the traditional conservative candidate, Francois Fillon, urged his supporters to rally behind Macron and reject the National Front after he was defeated in the first round of voting. The National Front "has 'a history of violence and intolerance' and will create 'failure and chaos' in both France and the EU, Fillon said. 'As a result, our only choice is to vote against her."
Here at home, many stalwart Republicans felt very much the same way about their eventual 2016 candidate Trump -- that his campaign was rooted in intolerance and that he didn't have the bearing or dignity to sit on the Oval Office. But after Trump clinched the GOP nomination in Cleveland, party leaders like Paul Ryan -- who'd criticized Trump for racist remarks -- and many elected officials who'd once swore that they were never Trump quickly fell in line.
Winning trumped morals. That's the difference between the 34 percent that Le Pen garnered in France and the 45.9 percent that give Trump the Electoral College here. The willingness of "respectable" Republicans to vote for a man who'd spoken openly of groping women while rallying support at xenophobic Nuremberg-style rallies resulted in the election of a president not worthy of their respect, or ours.
The good news, America, is that we could fix the election mess -- make Election Day a national holiday, and pass laws to make voting easier yet still secure. The bad news? You can't legislate a national conscience. So all we can say for now is, vive la France!