PARIS – “T’es cuit” read the scrawl over the Nicolas Sarkozy poster the day after France’s presidential election. “Does that mean what I think it means?” I asked a friend well acquainted with French political insult as we rode a bus through a quiet city Monday. The answer: “It d
oes. ‘You’re cooked.’”
General dissatisfaction with the state of things in France resulted in an engaged rather than apathetic electorate. A voter turnout of 80 percent — one that America can envy — defeated conservative incumbent Sarkozy and elected Socialist Francois Hollande. That does not necessarily translate into Mitt Romney’s nightmare scenario. The presumptive Republican nominee regularly rails against a President Obama, who he says favors “European-style socialism” for the United States, without really defining what that is.
I wonder whether Romney has been looking at the headlines the past few years. The austerity plans, the strict immigration proposals, the tough foreign policy stands that are his campaign boiler plate would have been indistinguishable from much of Sarkozy’s rhetoric and governing philosophy. Cutting to reduce debt is the austerity that several European countries favored and that voters in those countries — from Greece to England — are now questioning. The new call is for growth to be added to austerity in efforts to fix the economy and reduce unemployment.
Hollande’s early appointments and a planned trip to Germany, led by conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, lean toward a pragmatic view. He has, however, vowed to end tax breaks and increase taxes for the very wealthy. But he has also pledged to balance the budget. Though it may not change the country’s political philosophy as much as conservatives in America and France fear, it will be a change. As a business person and Sarkozy fan disgustingly predicted during an earlier weekend trip to the south of France, “The French don’t like practical things, so Hollande will definitely win.”
In France, the election process itself, though it blessedly avoids the multimillion-dollar negative advertising blitz, played by a script Americans could follow without a translator.
For instance, it’s always the economy. As he rung up my purchase at a Paris chocolate shop Monday evening, Nicolas Ezer talked about the central bank of France having too much power and his desire for a president who looked out for France first. He voted for Hollande, he said, though in the first round, he said he thought it was Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Left Front candidate, who would offer the most change. “Change” is that elusive quality disenchanted voters seem drawn to in any language.
Debates matter. In the meeting between Sarkozy and Hollande the week before the election, the candidates went after each other with charges and counter-charges. In the heated exchange that many in the media there called a draw, that Hollande was able to hold his own gave him the edge. As in America, it was an expectations game. In a truth that depressingly holds on both sides of the Atlantic, problems of the poor and underclass hardly rate a mention.
Though everyone I spoke with loves to talk the intricacies of political theory, don’t let that fool you. While Americans factor in the “who would you want to have a beer with” question and have been derided because of it, personality counts in France as well (“glass of wine with, perhaps?”). So many just don’t “like” Sarkozy — his Rolex, his short temper, his “in your face” demeanor that many I spoke with found “not French.” He was just “too much.” Although it was his policies French voters rejected, his likeability level ultimately did Sarkozy in.
On May 15, Hollande will be in and Sarkozy out. The new president will be welcomed to Camp David for the G-8 Summit and to Chicago for the NATO Summit. Unlike the American custom, there will be no lame duck.
The French, it seems, do value efficiency.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.