Tuesday, May 8, 2007

We Could Learn Something From France (It Hurt to Type That)

Now, like any country, France has its faults, like all that ridiculous accordion music. But, their health care is the best in the industrialized world. As is their poverty rate. And they're completely independent of Mid East oil. And they're the greenest country. And they're not fat. And they have public intellectuals in France. We have Dr. Phil!
- Bill Maher in his final "New Rule" on the May 4 edition of "Real Time With Bill Maher"

I am no Francophile. In fact, my one and only experience at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris was about as pleasant as being locked in a closet with Pepe Le Pew. The layout was maze-like, the employees were as helpful as “Brownie” in the Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina, and they lost my luggage. Which is why I find it so infuriating that watching the French electoral process unfold the last few days made me look on with envy.

The French race for president came down to a run-off between the conservative candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the socialist candidate, Segolene Royal. More than 84 percent of French citizens eligible to vote cast a ballot in the election, a victory for Sarkozy. To put that in perspective, in 2004, with a war going on in Iraq, only 55 percent of Americans bothered to show up at the polls, which was an improvement from the 51 percent turnout in 2000 and 49 percent participation rate in 1996. (Click here for a chart of voter turnout rates from 1960 to 2004.)

Not only did the French people show up, they also cared about the issues. The election was a battle between two views of the country. Sarkozy, in an effort to modernize France’s economy, promised to blow up French sacred cows like the 35-hour work week while threatening to keep services running during strikes. He also wanted to reassert French influence in the world and forge stronger ties with the U.S. (Yahoo!/AP Article on Sarkozy's Election) Royal, on the other hand, wanted to use the government to stimulate the economy while preserving France’s extensive welfare system. (Yahoo!/AFP Article on Royal's Campaign)

It was a debate between ideals, not about the personal lives of the candidates. Royal is an unmarried mother of four, while Sarkozy lives apart from his wife. Assuming for a second that somehow two candidates in those positions managed to get presidential nominations in this country, how much of the campaign rhetoric and advertising would be spent on their personal lives? As an electorate, we know more about Britney Spears’s tattoos than we do about the policies of our elected officials.

The reaction to the election was also telling. Some supporters of Royal were moved to riot and burn Sarkozy in effigy after the election. Not that rioting in the streets is necessarily a good thing. After all, part of enjoying the benefits of living in a democracy is accepting the results of a legally conducted election. But the passion showed by those who feel that Sarkozy’s ascendancy will mean the end to a certain way of life in France is actually a breath of fresh air. Despite Bush’s mismanagement of the Iraq war and the series of scandals and acts of incompetence that have plagued the administration, the most Americans could do was vote in a handful of new members of Congress in 2006 (when only 40 percent of citizens managed to pry themselves from their couches to cast a ballot, according to MSNBC). To get U.S. citizens into the streets in any number, you would have to make it a stunt on a reality television show.

Plus, Sarkozy, a hard-line conservative, said, "A great nation, like the United States, has a duty not to block the battle against global warming but — on the contrary — to take the lead in this battle, because the fate of the whole of humanity is at stake," according to a Yahoo!/AP Article. If a conservative in the U.S. even admits that global warming exists, it is likely a recent, post-"Inconvenient Truth" development. After all, three of the ten Republican presidential candidates happily admitted in a televised debate that they did not believe in evolution.

Look at what is going on now in America. The American people voted the Republicans out of power in November 2006 based entirely on the issue of Iraq. According to a Pew poll, only 24 percent of Americans think that the president’s beloved “surge” is working. In a Newsweek poll, Bush’s approval rating is down to an all-time-low 28 percent. So what does Bush do? He plows ahead with his failed and unpopular war, ignoring the message of the American people, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, Congress and virtually anyone not from Texas or a supreme being. In fact, the AP reported that the Pentagon has notified 35,000 soldiers to be prepared to be deployed to Iraq in the fall. Under legislation passed by Congress and vetoed by the president, the troops would be moving in the opposite direction.

Instead of asking what Bush has done, it might be time to ask Americans what they have done. Because really, despite the president all but flipping the bird to the American people and ignoring their wishes, is there any sign of mass outrage? Any massive demonstrations and protests? The administration is arrogant, but can you blame them for continuing on? What do they have to lose? There are no consequences for their misbehavior.

As hard as it is to admit, in this regard, U.S. citizens should be more like the French. France was right to oppose the war in Iraq from the beginning, and its citizens feel a sense of obligation to be politically engaged, look at the issues and vote accordingly that is sorely lacking in the U.S. If the single-mindedness of the Bush administration isn’t enough to move the American people, maybe the realization that the president has caused us to be jealous of France is enough to inspire citizens to action. After all, the French are responsible for an airport in Paris that is a pool of arrogance, incompetence and chaos. Sounds more like something the Bush administration would be responsible for, no?