In real democracies elections are a ‘means’ not an ‘end’. This is not the case with other types of democracy; such as the democracies of cheap slogans, and %90 victories which we have experienced in our countries, either to imitate others or to ingratiate ourselves to them in order to escape their pressure or anger.
This year, political observers have been awaiting three major scheduled elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, following the Brexit referendum in the UK and the US presidential elections. However, certain calculations have prompted British Prime Minister Theresa May to call for a snap early election. As if the Brexit ‘earthquake’ has not been enough, and the Scottish nationalists’ drive for independence is not gathering added momentum, voters in the UK will find themselves on 8 June facing a second general election in less than one year and one month after the last one.
Two days before the first round of France’s presidential elections, in the London apartment of an anglophile friend, there was a lively discussion about how the French and British deal with their respective democratic systems. During that discussion, we touched on two interconnected aspects: The difference in ‘party culture and traditions’, and the difference in ‘personal and social moods’ between the French and British (primarily, English) voters.
The French who vote today for their new president live a political culture different from that of their neighbors across the English Channel. Behind this fact are several factors, including:
1- The Geo-Environmental factor, as France is very much a part of the European mainland; and thus has witnessed since the dawn of history endless conquests, waves of immigration and settlement, and centuries of multi-ethnic interaction that have left a huge cumulative imprint on the French identity. Across the Channel, the British are ‘islanders’, which is a reality not only do they profess, but also stress to justify their tendency for exclusivity and exception. Still, while one must not dismiss the multi-ethnic side in the identity of the British, recalling the waves of conquests which brought the Celts, Romans, Angles and Saxons, Juts, Normans and others to Great Britain, the centuries’ old semi-isolation of the island has ensured a semblance of homogeneity in its central areas (as the Celts moved to the peripheries in Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall). This is not exactly true for France.
2- The factor of political change. Here, while France and the UK have both gone through civil wars and dynastic changes, the French have been more at home with ‘revolution’, as compared with ‘evolution’ – or gradual change – in the UK. In the latter, this has been the pattern since Magna Carta, and later ‘The Restoration’ (of monarchic rule after the Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth period following the parliamentarians’ rebellion against king Charles I). Hence, if ‘The French Revolution’ helped shape the political identity of France, and the storming of the Bastille became its national day it celebrates annually, the British position vis-à-vis rebellions or revolution is totally different. In fact, the British political establishment has been averse to any kind of armed struggle against the state as sedition, and in today’s jargon an act of terrorism. This is why London treated not the Irish Republican Army members, but also George Washington and the Mahatma Gandhi as “terrorists”.
3- The organizational/institutional factor. This applies when we see that the roles played by historic ‘larger than life’ individuals (such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles De Gaulle, and Francois Mitterrand) in France were much greater than those of political parties even during democratic rule. In the UK the opposite is true, as British political parties have always been ‘larger’ than the aura of their most successful leaders. One proof is that Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the two longest serving Conservative and Labour prime ministers in the last 100 years, were brought down by their own parties, not defeated by the opposition.
During that evening at my anglophile friend’s apartment, those present talked about the ‘moodiness’ of the French voters as opposed to the consistency, even predictability, of their British counterparts.
Among the things said was that Theresa May would not have called for snap general elections 3 years before the life of the current Parliamentary term had she was not sure she would win big; something which would ensure her a lager majority, and give her the freedom to finalize the UK’s exit from Europe. Those holding this view noted that she must have calculated – based on opinion polls – that the Labour opposition was in a pretty bad shape under its current radical leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn, particularly, since Corbyn has lost Labour the support of the uncommitted ‘floating’ voters, against the background of a divided opposition parties, and increasing threat of secessionist nationalists, namely in Scotland.
Despite the fact that opinion polls went badly wrong twice last year, with ‘Brexit’ and US presidential elections, the clear cut single-constituency party-based British general elections are usually easier to predict than the result of a single-issue referendum that divided both Conservatives and Labour down the middle.
In France, it has been more difficult to predict the outcome. What is at stake is not just how to satisfy the voters of a country where there are 264 types of cheese – as De Gaulle famously said –, but also the broad spectrum of candidates from the extreme right to the extreme Left, while the traditional ‘establishment’ candidates trailing badly. The latest polls gave both the Republican Gaullist candidate and the Socialist candidates less support than the extreme Right’s Marine Le Pen and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, and sometimes even the extreme Left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon. Then, as if all this was not enough, the Muslim identity of the ‘Champs Elysees Terrorist’ could only boost the chances of Le Pen, as well as the Republican Francois Fillon, who has shared a lot of her stances on Muslims and immigrants during the last months.
A final thought. British democratic traditions have proven to be capable of containing extremism. While in France, is a second and decisive round of voting enough to prevent ‘globalized terrorism’ from making fear-nurtured isolationism and bigotry… the major voter?
This article was first published on Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.