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Race and Beyond: French Voters Offer the United States a Campaign Lesson

SOURCE: AP/Francois Mori

French President-elect François Hollande waves to crowds gathered to celebrate his election victory in Bastille Square in Paris, France, Sunday, May 6, 2012.

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I’m wondering if there’s a lesson for U.S. politicians and voters in the recently completed French presidential election? My head says “Non!” but my heart screams “Oui! Oui!”

To bring the news-starved up to the international table, let’s recap briefly the results: François Hollande, a moderate member of the left-wing Socialist party, assumed the duties of France’s president Tuesday morning following a ceremony at the Élysée Palace in Paris. Hollande, the first Socialist leader of France since François Mitterand left office in 1995, garnered an estimated 52 percent of the vote in the second round of national elections on May 6, ousting the conservative incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy.

What’s more, campaigning for the first round of voting in France overlapped this spring with the GOP primaries in the United States. Just as Hollande was taking office, the Republicans seemed to have settled on Mitt Romney as their nominee.

Just as it will be in the United States, the French election’s overarching issue was the state of the nation’s economy. France is crippled by public debt. A sense of crisis is heightened by unemployment at nearly 10 percent. The country hasn’t reported a balanced budget in more than three decades. Earlier this year Standard and Poor’s, the financial rating service, downgraded the nation’s triple-A status to double-A+, noting that the country’s spending put dangerous pressure on public finances. In short, c’est terrible.

But for all the attention given to the economy in the campaign, foreign news reports suggest Hollande’s victory turned not so much on his promised fiscal reforms as the French voters’ perceptions of his personality and his sense of the French national identity. Or, to be specific, the electorate’s distaste of Sarkozy, whom the British newspaper The Guardian described as "the president of the rich."

Sarkozy alienated many in his country with a high-profile and headline-grabbing personality. Combining that with his sharp nationalist turn to the right, the former president turned off many of his fellow citizens. “The vote was viewed domestically as a rejection of the unpopular Mr. Sarkozy and his relentless effort to appeal to voters of the far right National Front,” The New York Times reported in a recap of the elections.

In campaign speeches, Sarkozy blamed much of France’s economic woes on excessive immigration, Islamist preaching, loss of national identity, and xenophobia. The Economist quoted Sarkozy delivering what it called "one particularly bizarre line" during a closing campaign stop in Toulouse. “Break down France’s borders, and you will see tribes impose the sort of behavior that we do not want on French soil,” Sarkozy said.

By contrast, Hollande promised to be a more inclusive French president. He pledged to fix the national debt, in part, by canceling tax cuts for the wealthy and other exemptions pushed by his predecessor. And in an echo of headlines dominating the U.S. media, Hollande offered his support for gay and lesbian couples to have the right to marry and adopt children.

It’s a rare moment when French and American voters, respectively, choose presidents in the same year. Unlike the U.S. system, where a president serves a four-year term, the French elect a president every five years. Sarkozy was seeking reelection to his second and final term, just as President Barack Obama will be when the U.S. electorate goes to the polls in November.

Attempting to extrapolate American insights from elections held in foreign countries might seem a fool’s errand. To be sure, France is as unlikely a model of American behavior as any Western democratic nation. Of all the recent conversations I’ve overheard at Starbucks or listened to during my daily work commutes, nobody has seemed riveted by French presidential politics. Indeed, it’s never come up.

So what’s the point of looking to the French for clues into our voting psyche? Several of the winning political themes over there are likely to emerge in our political rhetoric over here. Expect President Obama and Romney to travel the land, making round after round of political speeches, offering their divergent views on immigration reform, marriage equality, criminal justice, and—of course, the big one—economic reforms.

In the final analysis, the French electorate rejected hostility and extremism and tilted toward moderation and tolerance in choosing their president. That suggests (in my mind, if nowhere else) those are universal attributes of leadership. For all their cultural differences, French voters are just like their American counterparts. They cast their lot based on a practical assessment of the candidate’s words and deeds.

I think they got it right and, come November, I’m hoping we’ll be as fortunate on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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