Disagreement over the Iraq War certainly caused a rift in U.S.-French relations. Even the American public shared in the discord by dumping French wine and renaming French fries "freedom fries." However, as the French approach their first of two rounds of presidential elections, it seems that maybe the French public isn't so different from us after all.
Certain themes define each presidential election year in France, and this year's is la defiance, the distrust of the main political parties on the left and right. French citizens seem undecided about the candidates running. With less than a week until the election, two out of five voters still are unsure for whom to vote. At this point it is anyone's guess which two candidates will make the cut to continue to the second round.
Sound familiar? As Americans face the 2008 presidential elections, it is unclear who will win the primaries, and some early polls even suggest that once two candidates are chosen it may be a photo finish. Like the French, Americans want change, and it seems that some candidates are too closely associated with the established parties, which no longer provide a coherent vision.
Even though this is the first time in French history a woman is running for president, Segolene Royal, the Socialist Party candidate, hasn't been able to rally enough excitement around her candidacy to pull ahead of the pack. Nicolas Sarkozy, the Conservative party candidate and former minister of the interior, seems unable to dissociate himself from Jacques Chirac's unpopular presidency. Francois Bayrou, a third party candidate seen as an outsider, can't seem to make much headway either. At least political pundits think Jean Marie LePen, the far-right candidate who upset the 2002 elections, won't be causing any more surprises this year.
If one were to compare the French elections on Venus to the current American campaign on Mars, one could liken Royal to Hillary Clinton as the first female presidential candidates; Sarkozy to John McCain by their association to an unpopular administration; and Bayrou to Barack Obama or Rudolph Giuliani as less traditional runners. Obama as a newer face on the national scene and Giuliani as a more liberal viewpoint within the Republican Party could be an exciting change, but some are weary they might be too much of a gamble.
So the French step out to vote Sunday, unimpassioned with the main parties and wanting change. Americans, too, have grown skeptical about the war in Iraq, and even though it is not the top issue of the presidential campaign in France, citizens on both sides of the Atlantic share concerns over economic stability, immigration, pensions and health care costs. Maybe we aren't that much different from the French after all. The French, however, are fortunate that their misery will be over May 6. The American public will have to suffer much longer under the bombardment of campaign rhetoric.
Carolyn M. Dudek, Ph.D., is an associate professor of European politics at Hofstra University.