Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past half year (a cave without an Internet connection), you know that American and French presidential elections are nigh upon us. In the U.S., the big day is November 8, 2016. In France, the premier tour (first round) is April 23, 2017 and the deuxième tour two weeks later, on May 7. (Rounds? What this about rounds? Read on.) You don’t even have to speak the native languages of these countries to be aware of what is looming, as magazine covers and TV-news broadcasts assault us hourly with parades of people posturing at podiums, or cogitating in armchairs, or circulating through densely populated public squares on market day, trying to look…well, presidential.
Here is a cursory (very cursorypeople have written 500-page PhD dissertations and industrial-strength tomes about this) presentation of the differences between U.S. and French presidential elections and the institutions they impact.
TYPE OF GOVERNMENT
A U.S. presidential candidate has a vice-presidential running mate and aims for the top job in a “presidential” “administration.” The president chooses his/her cabinet members, who are subject to Senate approval. French presidential candidates run alone. The winner of the election chooses a prime minister, with whom he/she will share executive power in a “semi-presidential” “government.” The prime minister proposes to the president a list of suggested names for the other ministerial positions.
TYPE OF ELECTION
U.S. presidential elections are one-shot deals (where citizens are really electing electoral-college delegates who then elect the president/VP). France has a two-round system (where citizens vote directlyno electoral college): If, as has always been the case, no candidate obtains an absolute majority in a presidential election, a run-off is held two weeks later between the two who received the highest number of votes. (The French often use the first round as a “heart”or protestvote, reserving the second for a “head”or more reasonedvote. In 2002, this proved nearly disastrous, when a far-right extremist rode a wave of protest votes prominently into the second round!)
Election: By law, in the U.S., Election Day is the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. A U.S. president cannot serve more than two consecutive four-year terms. In France, elections are always held on Sunday. A French president cannot serve more than two consecutive five-year terms. The only presidents who have served two full terms are François Mitterrand (14 years) and Jacques Chirac (12 years, as by then term length had changed). If the presidency becomes vacantwhich would occur, for instance, if a president resigned (as did Charles de Gaulle in 1969) or died in office (as did Georges Pompidou in 1974)the first round of an election must be held in no less than 20 days and no more than 35 days. There is thus no predetermined date for the beginning of a presidential term. The President of the Senate serves as interim president in these cases, as did Alain Poher in both of the abovethe only person in the history of France to have held this temporary position.
Inauguration/Passation de Pouvoirs: The French president takes office the day after the second round of voting, in an investiture (passation de pouvoirs [“handing over of powers”]) ceremony that is way less elaborate (or long) than a U.S. presidential inauguration. U.S. Inauguration Day, per the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, is January 20. Until the amendment was ratified in 1933, the date was March 4, which had allowed pre-Industrial Revolution presidents the time needed to arrange for and make the often arduous trip from his home to his new place of employment.
Number: How, you may ask, can there systematically be no absolute majority in a presidential election? That’s because whereas in a U.S. presidential election, the occasional Perot or Nader notwithstanding (or New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s craving for an independent to at least take part in the debates), there are two candidates (a Democrat and a Republican), in France, le ciel seems to be the limit: As long as you obtain endorsement signatures from 500 mayors, you’re in! At one point in 2012, there were no fewer than TEN contenders for the prize.
Background: In France, a significant number of not only presidents but also government ministers (the equivalent of U.S. cabinet secretaries), heads of government departments, arts-institution directors, top-flight human-resource execs, bankers, CEOs and similar notables are groomed first at Sciences Po (L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques [Institute for Political Studies]) then at ENA (the Ecole Nationale d’Administration [National Administration-School]). Referred to as grandes écoles (literally: “big-schools,” and never “universities,” which are considered educational second-class citizens), these institutions are elite, exclusive, old-boys’-/girls’-network-preponderant guarantees for glorious, lucrative careers (although Sciences Po now goes to great lengths to foster admission of socially disadvantaged youth). By contrast (to cite merely a handful of examples), U.S. president Abraham Lincoln grew up in a one-room log cabin, Richard M. Nixon’s youth was marked by financial hardship, Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood star and nine U.S. presidents did not earn a college degree (for our French readers: collège is a faux ami meaning not “junior high school,” as it does in French, but what université means.): Washington, Jackson, Van Buren, Taylor, Fillmore, Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Cleveland and Truman.
In France, the results of opinion polls cannot be published, broadcast or commented upon in the media the day before and the day of an election, given their potential for influencing voting trends. In the U.S., we should take a page from France’s playbook on this one.
“WE CAN’T DECIDE ON THAT UNTIL AFTER THE ELECTION!”
This French declaration, which starts its crescendo-build about six months before the vote takes place, is not only an excuse for procrastination, it’s a logical assessment, given the scope and reach of government in everyday life. Who is holding what office where and when matters crucially in areas as diverse as the funding of an opera company and the date a building façade will be cleaned. In the U.S., you’re more likely to hear, “It doesn’t matter who gets electednuttin’s gonna change!”
— Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.