Jewish World Review April 29, 2002 / 17 Iyar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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About our 'broken' election system ... | Observing the results of the latest French election, you'd think it was Vichy and not the Free French who emerged victorious from the Second World War. Note the news from Paris:

France's own George Wallace has made the presidential runoff, synagogues are burning here and there, and the country's ambassador to London lapses into scatology when he refers to the Jewish state.

The big winners in the first round of France's perfectly logical, perfectly irrational system of electing a president turn out to be apathy (Jacques Chirac) and intolerance (Jean-Marie Le Pen). How French. And how hilarious -- if you don't have to live in France.

In the lowest turnout for a French presidential election in four decades, the favorite campaigners were a dynamic right-center candidate mired in charges of corruption and a sleepy left-center candidate recently shown to be a liar about his past.

The voters -- those who bothered to cast a ballot -- went for the Tweedledee on the right, but not the Tweedledum on the left. Instead, as the other candidate in the runoff, they chose a demagogue who for decades has been considered a disgusting but safe depository of all that country's conventional anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-anything-not-French bile. (M. Le Pen brings to mind various waiters, hotel clerks and bureaucrats I've had the bad luck to encounter in that country. All seemed so much more concerned with demonstrating their superiority than doing their job.)

Here's the actual vote, which has to be calibrated in percentages in order to tell who made it into the runoff: Jacques Chirac, conservative, sort of: 19.65 percent. Jean-Marie Le Pen, demagogue: 17.06 per cent. Lionel Jospin, socialist, but mainly colorless: 16.05 percent.

The results were so shocking (if only to the press, establishment and other oh-so-sophisticated observers) that M. Jospin announced he would retire from politics, which may be the only clear benefit of the whole election.

If you add up the three leading candidates' percentages, they come to barely half the vote. What happened to the other half? Did it just disappear, like growth in the French economy? No, it was divided among the remaining 13 -- count 'em, thirteen -- presidential candidates. (All it takes is 500 signatures from elected officials to get on the presidential ballot in France.)

A record number of the usually highly engaged French electorate abstained from the presidential race -- 28 percent. And a bumper crop of splinter parties on the left -- Greens, Trotsykites, Communists, the usual French proliferation -- cut into the mildly Socialist candidate's chances of making the runoff.

It was as if the 2000 presidential election in this country had been dominated by the Ralph Naders and Pat Buchanans. (Well, some say Ralph Naderdid determine that election.)

Inspector Clouseau could doubtless deliver a perfectly rational analysis and defense of such a system, but to English speakers, at least the kind who know their Burke and, yes, their Tocqueville, the word for this way to elect a president is wacky. Also, dangerous.

Edmund Burke tried to tell us: "The Constitution of a State is not a problem of arithmetic." Rather, it is a way to take into account the many dimensions of a people and forge a consensus that is greater than all its parts. It means considering both their different interests and their common stake in society, their variety and their unity. It's an almost mystical exercise, which may be why some consider the Constitution of the United States a miraculous work, or at least a sign of providential care.

In the French system, the people are just a collection of percentages. Which may explain why France keeps having to produce new republics. What are they on now, their fifth? One loses count.

Lest we forget, this is much the same system that some of our keener political scholars and reformers, not to mention the American Bar Association, would adopt in place of the "outmoded, unfair, inefficient" Electoral College. Granted, that venerable institution has problems, as the country discovered in 2000, but they're peripheral problems, not structural ones.

To preserve our electoral system and its stability, Americans need only assure that votes are counted beyond dispute in states like Florida. But the French system invites splinter candidates to make a hash of any national consensus. It can reduce a national election to meaninglessness, or maybe chaos. Do we really want to adopt a version of that system here?

Much of the debate over whether to preserve the Electoral College is really a debate over whether to preserve the two-party system that modulates our passions while allowing us to focus our energies. There are some who think that the Electoral College can be safely abolished and some system of presidential runoffs installed in its place, while preserving two national parties and the national stability they provide. Anybody who thinks that needs to look at France and think again.

Please, let's not junk the Electoral College quite yet. It would be like replacing hot dogs and apple pie with camembert and snails.

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