PARIS -- My friend the Frenchman had one of those Eurocomplaints that he had to get off his chest and onto America's back. "Here I am, a leading Americanologist," he had remarked accurately enough back in the spring, "and I don't know a single one of these Democratic candidates. They don't come to Europe like the older generation did. We don't know anything about them."
"That's all right," I responded. "Neither do we."
That is a hard notion for most Europeans to handle, despite the swift ends of the campaigns of Gary Hart and Joe Biden under the pressure of media exposure. It is a great cultural divide: We roll the dice with our politicians in a way they profess to find inexplicable and dangerous for the world. They natter on in ways we find stodgy and condescending.
The truth is that America and Europe have political systems that are weird in different ways. In France, for example, politics, sex and rhetoric are all taken too seriously to be the cause of scandal or the kind of national knee-slapping and finger-pointing that wrote finis to the Hart and Biden campaigns.
As Biden was being blown out of the water by remote-controlled videotape, a right-wing French presidential contender named Jean-Marie Le Pen was getting on front pages here by suggesting that the existence of Nazi gas chambers was only "a detail" of World War II history. A major brouhaha ensued -- for all of two days. The professionals think it may have clipped a point off of Le Pen's projected 10 percent share of the electorate, but he is still running hard while Biden is history.
Like every other politician who stands any chance of becoming France's president next May, Le Pen is a known quantity to all of France's voters. His gaffe was in voicing in open terms the covert but clear racist sentiment that won him his following in the first place. Nobody stopped to ask, as they did in the case of Hart and Biden, "Who is this guy anyway? Does he know who he is?"
Le Pen has built his constituency through 20 years of national exposure. It would not evaporate overnight because of a weekend fling or discovery that his law school record is not what he says it is. The same is true for the other French presidential candidates. Their faults and weaknesses are by and large known, and accepted, by an electorate that has been watching them closely at a national level for years.
It is my impression, in fact, that a majority of French voters would agree that the four leading contenders in the gathering presidential race (i.e., Mitterrand, Rocard, Barre and Chirac) are all qualified to be president. They definitely disagree on which one is best qualified, and they may think that the candidates they do not support have terrible flaws.
But voters here and elsewhere in Europe do not seem to harbor the kind of doubts and questions about their candidates' mental abilities and emotional stability that afflict Americans today during primary season. Candidates have reached the top by slogging through constituency systems that emphasize local ties, putting them on display over years to progressively widening circles of "neighbors" who decide whether their qualities outnumber the failings they may exhibit.
Personalities and positions are thus well known by the time the relatively brief formal campaign rolls around. Despite the widespread impression to the contrary, European politicians are engaged in permanent national political campaigns much more than are their American counterparts.
Movement during the campaign itself tends to be incremental and based on how competently the candidates run their campaigns and address their already known positions. Their questioners have to have mastered the details of the economy, arms control or other topics to push the debate, and the story, forward.
Such campaigns are unexciting when judged by the U.S. standards of dramatic disclosure or sudden shifts in the polls. Check recent stories about European elections and see how often they are portrayed as boring or excruciatingly predictable. But also reflect on the proposition that the reasonably attentive reader of The Washington Post or The New York Times was probably exposed to more coverage this year about Neil Kinnock's views on arms control than about Hart's or Biden's.
Or consider that George Bush's dramatic meeting with Lech Walesa in Warsaw Monday received more coverage on French television than it did on the "CBS Evening News" that day. For all the stodginess and insufferable condescension, on politics Europe has a point.