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Exceptionalism

It’s getting increasingly difficult to list the ways in which France is different. It’s a commonplace to say that one of the consequences of globalisation is that policy differences — and to some extent cultural differences — get squeezed. But no one can look at Sunday’s first round of the French election from outside the hexagon with anything other than amazement.

Consider that the leading candidate, incumbent president Jacques Chirac, faces jail on corruption charges if he doesn’t retain his presidential immunity. This isn’t sex in the Oval Office (we already knew the French didn’t care about that sort of behaviour). These charges involve very large sums of money. But Chirac isn’t the only astounding figure in the election.

There’s Arlette Laguiller, from Lutte Ouvrière, or Arlette the Starlette as she has apparently been dubbed. She may take 10% of the first round vote. Oh, and she’s for the violent overthrow of parliamentary democracy, and belongs to a secret party whose leaders are known even to activists only by pseudonyms. I liked this line: “Born in 1940, Laguiller has been, in the words of one former colleague, ‘a committed revolutionary since roughly 1939’.”

But despite this colour, the real contest between the soiled Chirac and the boring Lionel Jospin (he has, they say, “all the charisma of a Swedish professor of religious studies”) has been terminally dull. As long-time front runners, both are terrified of making some election-losing error. So they say nothing other than platitudes, and seem to have few ideas on policy or vision. The likelihood, whichever wins in the second round of voting next month is more of the same from France.

And the curious thing is that by most standards, France continues to prosper on this diet.   

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