Tuesday, April 17, 2012

my vote

France is not the only place in the world where an election is about to take place. A few days after the Presidentielle, Londoners have the chance to voice their preferences for the next mayor. The format is much the same as on the other side of the Channel, as are some disturbing details. There are two rounds, most candidates promote their faces and names over their parties and policies, the contest is dominated by vanities, and the outcome won't matter much one way or another.

The Mayor of London doesn't have much formal power. He runs the police and the underground and promotes cultural event on Trafalgar Square. I think that's pretty much it. Housing and truly local issues are dealt with by two dozen councils that each run libraries, social services and parking, and make planning decisions. They don't share or coordinate and duplicate services without though. It's a gloriously wasteful setup, designed as if money came down the Thames every day in heavy barges.

Of the seven official candidates for mayor, only two get regular airtime. These are universally referred to by the first names only. The decision is between Boris and Ken. Boris is a bumbling clown and the current mayor. His appeal lies in his self-deprecating down-to-earth nature and his personal charm. With a classical education and a vast vocabulary, he always has a quotable sound bite on his lips. He sounds eminently qualified and hardworking if you get your news through Twitter. But listen to him for more than five sentences and the vacuousness of his babbling, his strained striving for laughs, and his deliberate chumminess become painful.

I now see in him the kind of guy that would rush for cold drinks and the deck chairs if you're house caught fire and then sit in best spirits there watching it burn with you. His first-term accomplishments are few. He has spread blue hire-bikes throughout central London but at the same time significantly decreased the zone where pricing is used to increase traffic flow. He has also overseen a relentless increase in the cost of public transport.

His adversary is Ken, old and bitter, a former mayor who was booted out of the office he's now seeking to reoccupy in the election four years ago. Ken, formerly known as Red Ken, is a socialist, though how that translates into policies or even ideas isn't clear. Even after the financial crisis, the power of the City is unchallenged. Ken lays claim to many of the things that Boris has done, notably the bikes, and he promises to make the underground cheaper, but there's nothing of substance beyond that.

There's nothing of substance to help you decide between the two main contestants at all. There's no point to go for one or the other. The only difference will be in the press conferences, cheerfully loquacious versus sullen and grumpy. One might as well vote for someone else, just to make a point.

It took me a trip to Wikipedia to find out who else is running. I found five also-rans without the trace of a chance. One thought on each of them: There's a former high-ranking member of the metropolitan police who’s happy to appear on TV and participate in debates but doesn't seem particular interested in the details of the job, in how to implement policies, in numbers, budgets and statistics. His main qualification, according to how he's presented, is his being gay.

The green candidate supports "a strong emphasis on sustainability and localism." In other words, she likes the hire-bikes but has nothing concrete to offer at all. There's an independent candidate who's detached from all formal incarnations of power in the city. She's so independent she might as well contest her own personal election. The candidate of the British National Party, an openly anti-immigrant outfit, was born in Uruguay and has Spanish and Italian ancestors. It's like an African-American run your local chapter of the Klan. Lastly, there's a candidate from a party whose main point is to leave the EU. What this means for London is an unresolved mystery.

Let me summarize: There are two beauty queens of opposite character and five forgettable extras. What a choice! As a citizen of a country of the European Union, I'm allowed to vote in this election. Though with not a single candidate deserving of my vote, why should I?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

la présidentielle

My personal Muppet of the Week award goes to Spain this week. Even if the country is going to the dogs, the king still knows how to live the high life, going big-game hunting in Botswana as if austerity had never happened. Having bagged a few pachyderms, His Majesty stumbled over a pile of severed trunks, tripped and broke his aging hip. It didn't take long for the story to break. His subjects, most of them out of employment and in no mood for frivolity or decadence, got themselves into a fit.

They will get over it. The guy is king, and a pleasure hunt in defiance of popular misery has forever been a royal prerogative. No matter how agitated the complaining, the king will be king next year and the one after that until he puts down his crown or keels over dead. Politicians in elected office are not so lucky. They have to take the ire of the people more seriously, appeasing them and appealing to them simply to keep their job.

In France where a revolution or at least a general strike is never too far off, staying in power is a trick that speaks of magic. As it happens, President Sarkozy is readying his wand at the moment. The first round of the presidential election is only a week away.

During the election that swept Sarkozy into the Elysée five years ago, I lived in France. With the help of a teaser subscription to Le Monde, I followed the proceedings assiduously (and even wrote about them). The four main candidates were easy, but there was a howl of wing nuts on the left fringe whose purpose I couldn't figure out. All they achieved with their bickering over the right path towards communism and prosperity was preventing any sort of hard-left unity and splitting the dark red vote into chunks almost too small to count.

When I went down to Marseille over Easter, I was curious to see how things were shaping up this time around. Besides the Economist's harsh words of admonition, which I carried with me, I had nothing to go by. Here are a few of the things that struck me on the ground.

To advertise their campaigns, all presidential candidates are allocated the same space, usually near the town hall or the market. Temporary installations of metal poster boards, numbered and of uniform size, assure an égalité of presentation that is cute in concept but pointless in reality. The candidates' faces, in numbers determined by the financial health of each campaign, stare from walls, hoardings and kiosks. The official boards often go unused.

Various communists and anti-capitalists are still at it, but they are fewer in number than last time, and there isn't one as inspiring as the 33-year-old mailman with dreams of world revolution who ran in 2007. Instead, I noticed a woman modestly advertising herself as "a communist candidate", as if she didn't mind if people voted for one the others.

It would have puzzled me to see the left in decline in these days of economic crisis when the capitalist model itself is coming under renewed scrutiny on university campuses and in Left Bank cafés, had I not already read in the Economist that the French hard left, against time-honored traditions, had united their forces. The candidate for the Left Front is polling in third to fifth, depending on who's asking, and the numbers are close. The moderate left's candidate is tipped by many to win.

Never mind the previous paragraph, the left in France isn't interesting. There's too much of it, it's all over the place, and nothing can surprise because everything has been said (100% tax on incomes above €300,000, promised by the Left Front's candidate) and done (strikes and revolutions). The far right is more intriguing at the moment, represented as always by the National Front.

When the party was run by an angry old man named Le Pen, it was universally despised. In a shock to the system, Le Pen advanced to the second round of the Présidentielle in 2002, but the party lost air like a punctured balloon after that and descended into irrelevance. Then, about a year ago, Le Pen let daughter take over. The effect has been striking.

The only campaign relic I brought back with me is Marine Le Pen's brochure, which I found jammed underneath Fangio's windshield wiper one morning. At sixteen pages in fresh colors, the pamphlet exudes confidence. A benevolent smile radiates from the candidate's life-size face gracing the title. As far as I can tell, all pressing political issues are addressed inside. The presentation is clear but the phrasing deliberately cryptic.

Immigrants are criminal lice that must be squashed, reads one section – except it says: In all matters, priority will be given to French people. Benefits for families with at least one French parent will be increased. Anti-French racism will be confronted restlessly. Some paragraphs are necessarily more explicit and grim, but there are many that are rather warm and friendly. Overall the tone is down. The objective is clearly electability.

At some point I realized that the National Front, the party the candidate is heading, is never mentioned in the pamphlet. I studied it front to back, even read the fine print, there's nothing. On the last page you can cut out a form and pledge your support, but only to the candidate herself. The spin-doctors must have been of the opinion that the name National Front carried too many distasteful connotations, that the past must be suppressed to have a chance of glory.

What were they thinking? Marine Le Pen is her father's daughter. She shares his very distinct last name. Sure, the verbal goonery and the crude aggressiveness are gone. But no one will mistake Le Pen for the nurse of France's ills. Or will they? The first round of the Présidentielle on Sunday will show if the next Muppet of the Week award goes to the spin-doctors or to the French electorate.