Foreign affairs divide French voters

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The Independent Online
ACROSS the length and breadth of France not a single unauthorised political poster despoils the landscape just five days before the first round of National Assembly elections.

Meanwhile, French television is blissfully free of American-style 'attack' political advertising and, while public relations hitmen are discreetly employed in the background, slick advertising campaigns from the likes of Saatchi and Saatchi are not allowed. Political parties are given time on state-owned television, but they may not use an image of a political opponent without permission, which is, of course, out of the question.

The French love opinion polls and they use them to analyse every aspect of the elections, but by law the last opinion poll must be published seven days before the first round of voting. At least six leading polling companies have been hard at work during the campaign, logging the surge in popularity of ecologists to 19 per cent, only to write them off a few weeks later.

The results of the final polls have now been published, indicating that to all intents and purposes the result is in the bag for the centre-right UDF-Gaullists, with the Socialists virtually eclipsed as a political force.

Despite a French preoccupation that the country's politics and culture are being Americanised, the differences between a French election and the razzmatazz of American - or, increasingly, British campaigns - could not be more striking.

What has changed this time, however, is that the French are divided as never before over foreign affairs. Instead of being perpetually inward-looking and concentrating on political personalities, the election is increasingly concentrating on such issues as relations with Germany, looming trade conflicts with the US and the strong franc policy which is causing high interest rates and the widely perceived side effect of spiralling unemployment.

There have been few pyrotechnics this time around, apart from the call by the Socialist leader, Michel Rocard, for a 'political big bang' and the mood in the country is serious. Every day quality newspapers such as Le Figaro and Le Monde devote page after page to question-and-answer-style interviews with political leaders. Politicians' speeches are reported and analysed at length, with no attempt to make headlines or go beyond what was actually said. Magazines such as Le Point devote entire issues to analysing the minutiae of the elections with a degree of objectivity that would be considered tedious elsewhere.

Another sharp contrast between French politics and the US model, so often cited, is that reporters do not hound politicians for slips of the tongue. The French take their politics and politicians more seriously and ambush tactics are frowned on. Candidates reserve the right to campaign without the press being around, even to the point of seeking to confiscate film from photographers if the pictures are deemed to have been taken at a private event, no matter that it has been billed locally as an evening with the candidate. Unlike British politics, there are no contrived photo-opportunities or deliberately engineered television 'soundbites' in a French poll.

Perhaps the most serious ordeal for political leaders is the grilling they are given on French television, where candidates are subjected to lengthy questioning at peak viewing time. Candidates must show themselves capable of thinking on their feet while remaining witty and easy-going.

Electioneering here is a much more stately affair, and while candidates can cover a lot of territory getting out the vote there is always a lengthy halt for a three-course lunch and a serious dinner at the end of the day. There are no manic, dawn-to-dusk binges of gladhanding, but instead a Gallic even-handedness that assumes maturity in the electorate.

(Photograph omitted)