The Power of Cheese to Sway French Elections

runny-cheeseElections are different in France.

A few years ago my wife and I were there during the election for seats in the European Parliament. About a dozen political parties had slates of candidates running.

A few days before the election, the conservative party had a televised rally to fire up the troops and get out the vote. We decided to watch it, figuring it would give us insight into the important political issues of the day. Plus it would be good for our French.

Most of the speeches were boring, with the usual applause lines. There were shout-outs to dignitaries in the audience, potshots at the competition, promises to lead France boldly into the future. The crowd clapped politely but there wasn’t a lot of real enthusiasm.

Then things got exciting.

The final speaker was wrapping up his speech and wanted to go out on a high note. “We will work together with the European Union on initiatives like the electric car,” he thundered, “but we will defend ourselves against those bureaucrats in Brussels when it comes to important French interests like”…(dramatic pause)…”RAW MILK CHEESE!”

Suddenly, the crowd went wild, cheering and stamping their feet, throwing things in the air. It was like Charles de Gaulle had just liberated Paris from the Nazis or something.

My wife turned to me. “Did he really say raw milk cheese?” she asked. “That’s crazy!”

The next day we asked some French friends about this. It’s true, they said, and they were outraged. They explained that there was a move afoot to force cheese makers across Europe to pasteurize their milk. “This will make the cheese tasteless!” they cried. “Tasteless food – the English must be behind it! “

Sometimes it is in the most unlikely places that you find what really moves French hearts.

A few days later the results came in and the conservative party was the big winner. They far outperformed the pre-election polls.

Never underestimate the power of cheese.

France is About to Pick a New President, Too

I’m sick of hearing about the US presidential election, aren’t you? Let’s talk about France instead.

France elects a president every five years. And the next election will be in April 2017. But everyone in France knows that the country is really picking its president this month.

Wait, what?

First, a quick explanation of the French electoral system

The president is elected in two rounds of voting. The first round is a kind of free-for-all, with nearly a dozen candidates from parties large and small.   The big parties are the Socialists on the left, the Republicans on the right and the National Front on the far right. But these are boring. My favorites are the New Anti-Capitalist Party (so French) and the Royal Alliance (bring back the king!)

Usually, no one wins a majority in the first round and so the top two winners face off a few weeks later.

Normally, this second round is between a Socialist and a Republican. But right now the Socialists are in disarray, with their leader President Francois Hollande regularly setting new records for unpopularity. And the National Front, led by demagogue Marine Le Pen, is on the rise.

All indications are that the runoff will be between the Republican candidate and Marine Le Pen.

This happened once before, in 2002. In that election the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, edged out Socialist Lionel Jospin and made it into the second round.   Fearing a National Front victory, Socialists went overwhelmingly for conservative Jacques Chirac, who cruised to victory with 82% of the vote.

This is expected to happen again, with Socialists holding their noses and voting for the Republican. So whoever is the Republican candidate will almost certainly be the next president of France.

And who is that?

Until now, the Republicans have chosen their candidate in the proverbial “smoke-filled room.” But this time they are holding their first-ever primary election.   And it takes place this month.

The favorites are former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. The election is expected to be close.

Interestingly, the Socialists may tip the balance. The Republican have decided to hold an open primary, meaning anyone can vote. And large numbers of Socialists are expected to do so, with most of them plumping for Juppé. Their thinking is, why let the Republicans pick the next president all by themselves?

So while the electoral calendar shows the French president being elected next spring, the real action is this month. Keep an eye on it.

As a bonus, the President of France also becomes Prince of Andorra, the only elected monarch in the world. So the French are picking a prince as well as a president.

Interesting country, that France.