Wednesday, March 14, 2007

French politics: countdown to the election

Sunday night, we had our first briefing on the political structure in France. French voters will head to the polls in May to elect a new president, replacing Jacques Chirac, who has been the country's leader for 12 years, and in politics in France for 40 years.
There are three leading contenders (and at least three lesser known ones who pollsters believe have little chance of actually impacting the race). The forerunners are Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkosy, 52, Socialist Segolene Royal, 53 and Francois Bayrou, 55. Royal has drawn the most media attention because she's believed to be the first woman with a real shot at being elected president of France. Obvious comparisons are also being drawn to Hillary Clinton in the U.S. race.
In doing research for this trip, it was easy to see that media coverage of France's elections have intensified in just the past few months, with the election just a couple months away. We Americans (and the candidates)have to endure (and fund) nearly 18 months of media ads and campaigning. That's largely due to France's "tight limits on campaign spending and a ban on political advertising on commercial hoardings in the three months preceding an election." (Reuters: Advertising big guns out for French poll.)

We had the pleasure of learning more about the elections during a fabulous dinner with:
  • Stephane Rozes, Director of Opinion Polls and Institutional Studies for CSA, an independent administrative authority that was created to guarantee broadcasting freedom in France, which is somewhat like our FCC, and

  • Harold Hyman, a journalist with BFM-TV, a new information outlet using TV, cable, satellite and internet. That's me and Harold below.

They gave us a great overview of the upcoming election and the candidates, however when it came time for questions, one of the GMF fellows remarked that it all seemed to be more about the personal histories, personalities, and positive or negative relations between the candidates and/or Chirac than about issues of importance to the average voter. Yes, I know this sounds similar to the U.S., but it seemed magnified. Where they stood on the issues was not mentioned until we asked.
Our hosts explained that in France's party-run system, issues are set by the parties, not so much the candidates, so issues are not discussed much during the campaign.

I asked about the role of women and minorities in politics since Segolene Royal's ascendency was being so trumpeted. Are there others in the pipeline behind her? The answer is no, again, due to the party structure, which our hosts said makes it very tough for them to rise through the ranks from the local level to national prominence, and even then, it is a very long process, like decades.
I found that discouraging, and was reminded that it was only in mid-2006 (!) that France's national TV channel hired Harry Roselmack, its first black anchor and what an uproar that caused. And that came a year after Chirac urged the media to hire more ethnic minority journalists, and even that tepid boost only came in reaction to riots by Arab youths.

Another GMF fellow asked about the integration of religious and ethnic minorities in France and how that was being handled by the presidential candidates. The ensuing discussion veered off into the headscarf issue that had been hotly debated in France recently: whether to allow the growing number of Muslim girls in school wear traditional headscarfs. A panel was convened to discuss the issue and came up with 25 rules governing religious symbols in schools.
Coming from the Pacific Northwest, one of the least churched areas of the country on a per capita basis, I admitted that I found this amazing because none of the issues being mentioned as the root of the hubbub were at all related to the actual education the kids receive. It was all about perceptions by others and the messages it might send.
When I was in school, I played basketball with a girl whose religion did not allow her to wear pants, and certainly not our uniform shorts. Rather than convene a panel and go the French route, school administrators simply let other schools in the league know that she would be playing in a uniform top with a floor-length skirt for religious reasons. No one really batted an eye and life went on.
Our hosted reminded me that it was a much bigger impact in France, with hundreds of girls taking to wearing the scarves. Also, the panel approach came out of centuries of distrust of mixing church and state/religion and education because the church in France had supported the monarchy and its oppression of the masses before the masses revolted.
"So our feeling is we do not want religion in schools, we do not want religious symbols in schools," said Stephane. "Our view is 'keep the priests off our kids'."

"That statement has a whole different connotation in the U.S.," I said, "But I understand your point."

Our well-fed, better-informed, little group at the end of the night.
The whole evening was filled with questions and discussions like this, comparing and contrasting the French and U.S. approach. Coming in to this trip, I was an avowed lover of all things French, except for the whole absolute monarchy bits mentioned in my previous post. Now, I'm starting to get a more rounded and complete view of the country's complexities, and even its negative aspects, which was inevitable given my overly-rosy view coming in. That's not a bad thing. I see the shift as a result of a more informed view. And being more informed is almost always good.

Versailles: gilt-y as charged

Sunday morning, four of us and our Paris coordinator hopped the Metro to Versailles just southwest of Paris. First, some quick backstory. Although the village (now city) has been around since 1000 AD, it's relevance to the French monarchy begin in the early 1600s when King Louis XIII built a hunting lodge on what was then wooded farmland far from the main castle in Paris. Today, Versailles is a city in the suburbs of Paris.

Louis's successor, Louis XIV undertook a major upgrade and renovation of the chateau in 1661. If you've ever struggled through a home renovation with sliding deadlines, you'll appreciate this: it took 21 years to complete the palace at Versailles. But oh what a project. If I had to describe Versailles in two words, I'd go with gilt and gi-normous (as in gigantic and enormous).
Keep in mind, all the marble stone, floor to ceiling windows, stairwells, wings, EVERYTHING, was built centuries before mechanized construction equipment, computer-aided drafting, and OSHA rules.
Imagine what it was like for the laborers and the precursor to our general contractors. "What do you mean you lost a hand moving a 1/4 ton marble slab for the queen's dressing room? Tough. Try not to block the courtyard with your begging. By the way, the marble wasn't damaged, was it?"
As impressive as this place is, I can't help but wonder how many people died or were maimed in its construction. The royals were not similarly burdened with such thoughts. They saw the largesse as a birthright. In fact, Louis XIV built it out in the sticks away from Paris because he wanted a site that fit his view of an absolute monarchy. A place where he could organize and completely control tne government of France by absolute personal rule. Over the years, he would expand it into the largest palace in the world. It worked great for him and his progeny until the people got a little peeved and started a little dust up called the french revolution in 1789.

But leaving all that aside, the place is mind boggling in its opulence, especially for that time period. After a couple hours of listening to an audio guide describe each room and walking marble corridor after marble corridor of gilt mirrors, hand-stitched, minutely detailed fabric wall coverings, ornate decorations, larger than life size statues and 40-foot ceiling frescoes, my mind just shut down. Oh look, another opulent chamber, like the other six before it.
We barely explored the grounds, which were a whole other expanse of incredible landscape design.

It was definitely worth the trek though.