From time to time, my French husband Tom makes an appearance here on the ol’ blog and today is one of those days. Like most Americans, I’ve been following the election from afar — and mailed my absentee ballot — and what surprised me is the interest Tom would have in it. He’s not a US citizen and has never lived in the USA, but we faithfully watch State of the Race with Kate Bolduan on CNN every evening. As an outsider looking in, Tom is sharing some things he finds strange about the American presidential election process.
Ask Tom Tuesday: What a French guy finds strange about the American presidential election process
New here? This is my French husband’s series. I’m often asked what my husband thinks about American (and French) culture, food, the people and more. Curious minds want to know what French guys think about all kinds of things, so today Tom is back and talking about the election.
Please note: Tom’s mother tongue is French and I don’t edit his posts in an effort to keep them as authentic as possible. He’s also not a blogger, so if you enjoy his series, please let us know in the comments, and of course submit any questions you have for him here on my contact page! He spent 4.5 hours on this for my blog (it’s hard writing in another language!) and he’s very thorough, so show him so love!
Let’s get to the post…..
I feel like many Americans might even agree with Tom about some of his points. Here, he’s sharing some insight into the French election process — the next presidential election in France will be April/May 2017 — while noting what he finds a tad strange about the American presidential election hullabaloo.
Take it away, Tom…
So, first up.
Where are the less popular candidates?
When watching the US presidential election, once we’re past the primaries, I always feel that it’s a 2-candidate election (and it’s actually probably not only a feeling but close enough to a fact), whereas in France you see way more candidates, why is that?
I think there are 2 main reasons:
- It’s not a 2-round election in the USA like in France
In France, the presidential election is organized in 2 rounds. No, I’m not talking about the primaries. Technically, in the first round, if one candidate gets the absolute majority (50% or more) of the recorded votes (= total ballot papers cast minus blank ballot papers + spoilt ballot papers), he/she is elected president at the end of the first round, so no second round necessary, but that never has happened in history! So we vote again.
For the 2nd round of our presidential election, only the 2 candidates who obtained the most recorded votes can participate.
That 2-round process allows smaller candidates to participate and more importantly, voters to pick them. Because in the first round, you can vote for the candidate that you really like and is in line with what you want for the country.
Then for the 2nd round, you pick your next best choice if your first choice doesn’t make it, even if he/she is not your ideal candidate.
That also allows for political strategies where the smaller candidates (and their ideas) who are eliminated in the first round can weigh in on the policies of the remaining candidates.
So how does this shape up in practice? Consider that during the last presidential election in 2012, the 2 major candidates (of the 2 major parties in France) only received a total of 56% of the recorded votes (the rest being spread among the other 8 candidates !).
In the US in 2012 it was 98% for the 2 major candidates (the remaining 2% was spread among 2 other candidates).
In order to attract voters for smaller candidates, the major ones can try to modify their policies. For example, if a Green Party candidate had a good showing in the first round, the 2 candidates remaining in the 2nd round can try to include or enhance « green » policies in their plans/programs. It can create alliances too.
2. On-air time isn’t balanced
In France, the rules of media coverage for a presidential campaign are pretty strict with 2 different phases.
Phase 1: Before the official campaign (which starts 2 weeks before the first round of the election) : all broadcast of candidates — either themselves or supporters — must be managed with equity. This meaning that the air time allowed on national TV and radio to each candidate must be in accordance with her/his « weigh » (like if in the polls you represent around 10% of the votes, your air time must be around 10% of the total of all the candidates).
Phase 2: From the beginning of the official campaign, it’s the principle of equality. So all the candidates in the first round — no matter how small — are allowed the exact same amount of time on national TV and radio.
People are actually paid by an independent institution to count the air time of each candidate and make sure they all get the same number of minutes.
That’s why you would never see only 2 candidates at a presidential debate in France (if it happens before the first round obviously).
I find that a bit unfair and almost undemocratic that in the US the presidential debate only shows 2 candidates out of, well actually I don’t even know how many official candidates there are…
I know there are 4, but apparently there are more, just some of them don’t appear on ballots… something I really don’t understand so I won’t even talk about that other mystery here!
Also, political TV commercials are strictly forbidden in France.
Although there are official TV campaign clips that consist of standard video clips with strict rules of content and presentation (a candidate talks about his plan/program/ideas, but can’t directly criticize another candidate). Those clips are all broadcast one after the other on public TV channels, and even the order of appearance is set by random draw.
I think it’s rather good that excessive paid commercials trashing one’s opponent are forbidden, that way you don’t get nasty clips about candidates which sometimes focus more on destroying the other than explaining their actual policies. Moreover, candidates appear as equals since the ones with less funding couldn’t have commercials on TV because of the cost. Each candidate gets his or her airtime.
It probably also contributes to the French campaigns being less nasty than ones in the USA.
You can vote early
I can understand the reason that would motivate someone to vote early (not able to be there on Election Day, wanting to avoid crowds at polling center, etc.), I still find it a little weird because 1) it means you can vote for a candidate without having the « full picture » (ex : what if the candidate you pick says or does something after you voted that would have made you change your mind? Oh well, it’s too late 2) it probably creates more logistic and security problems (administration has to keep those ballots to count them with the rest on Election Day) 3) stupid remark, but, one could vote early and be dead by Election Day, does that vote count? (as I’ve heard some are accusing dead people of voting ! maybe that’s why ! haha)
In France you can only vote on Election Day, which is actually a Sunday. Funny, right? We DO do stuff on Sundays sometimes.
If you live abroad, you can vote at the embassy or consulate. If you can’t go to the polling place on election day or are unable to vote (disabled, sick, on vacation, etc.), you can proxy vote. In this case, someone is going to vote for you according to your instructions. Yes, I know it’s a bit weird too because you really have to trust that person since she’ll be free to vote for another candidate than who you pick at the polling place ! Does that exist in the US ? Don’t think so.
FYI, Diane is not a citizen and cannot vote. She talks more about that here.
Americans vote on Tuesday
That is something that appears prohibitive and really not convenient to me. In France as I mentioned, we vote only on Sundays, which I think makes perfect sense since it’s when most people don’t work. Therefore, they’re more likely to be available to go vote — so higher turnout!
So from my point of view, why do that on a weekday when people have to go to work, bring their kids to school and so on?? That’s a mystery to my logical mind. To be fair, I need to add that in France, polling centers are open from 8am to 7pm while I’m pretty sure they’re open on longer hours in the US.
Voting ballot process
I’ve known for quite some time that the voting ballot process was more complicated in the US, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized what a headache it could give someone. I saw a presidential ballot for the first time (Diane’s from the state of Florida), and I was like « what the hell is that ??? » It looked so complicated with tons of questions about judges and marijuana and solar power. Not to mention everything was written real small! You’d better have good sight! Or you won’t after voting.
In France, you only vote for one election at a time. Meaning that for the next presidential election, the only thing you have to choose from is between the candidates of the presidential election (not the representative, or answer if Judge A should remain in office, if you want to legalize medical marijuana and blablabla…)
I think it makes things simpler. Our ballots are sheets of paper that have the candidates’ names and that’s it. No long-winded questions. Nothing else.
Also, we only vote using paper ballots and no voting machines either. It’s not that I’m against technological advances, but I think paper remains more trustworthy than electronic which can still fail sometimes and we don’t draw either. On Diane’s, she had to connect the part of an arrow. Maybe that’s just an absentee ballot thing.
In short, you go to the polling place, there on a table you find displayed piles of paper ballots. There’s a candidate’s name on each paper and then there are envelopes. You take an envelope and the candidate papers (or only the ones you want, you do what you want), you go in the polling booth, put the paper with the candidate you’re voting for in the little envelope, close it, leave the booth and proceed to vote by dropping your envelope in the ballot box . Before doing this, they check your ID and voting card. You sign your name on a register and you’re done.
In the US, it’s possible to lose the popular vote and still win the presidential election. It’s happened 4 times with the most recent being George W. Bush in the 2000 election.
In France, the presidential election is a « strictly » direct process, meaning that people vote directly for the candidate of their choice. The popular vote determines the president, end of story.
I find that to be the most democratic process since the winner of the election is automatically the one with the most votes. I have to admit that it’s strange for me to understand how the elected president could be someone that wasn’t picked by the majority of the American voters!
Transition period is long
I’ve always wondered why for the American presidential election process, the vote occurs in early November but the newly elected president only starts her/his term in the middle of January? The transition in France is way faster (yes for once something is faster in France!) since it usually happens less than a week after the results of the election.
*Miscellaneous things to note*
- You can be a candidate for the presidential election as young as 18 years old (35 in the US)
- First and second rounds of the election are always 2 weeks apart
- You need the “sponsorship” of 500 elected people (mayors, representatives, senators…) to officially register as a presidential candidate
- Since there’s no VP in France, you only vote for one candidate’s name (it’s not a “ticket” with 2 names).
- Financing in any way by companies is forbidden (no super PAC things)
- Around 50% of the cost of the campaign is reimbursed by the state if you don’t exceed the spending ceiling (which is around 20 million euros) and the campaign counts are strictly controlled
- Candidates need to show a declaration of assets
As always, a big thanks to Tom for taking the time to write on my blog about the French election process. Did you learn anything? 😉
If you have a question for Tom, please email us here!
Comments…. thoughts…. questions? If you live abroad, did you vote?
*Politics have a tendency to bring out the worst in people, so I hate to even have to say this, but please be respectful in your comments. Merci.*
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