Reading today's report on the coming presidential election in France, prepared by Stefan Simons for Der Spiegel, reminds me of Peter Ustinov's 1958 recording project, The Grand Prix of Gibraltar, now available on CD. At the risk of spoiling the punch line for those who have not heard it, one by one, each of the drivers' attempts to achieve speed and/or overtake the competitors, hurtles over a cliff; and the prize (the "Prix du Rock") goes to the one driver who opts for caution (British, of course) and therefore makes it to the finish line intact. This is just too good a metaphor for the current race for the French presidency. Indeed, one has to wonder whether or not both Sarkozy and Royal have already driven their campaigns over a cliff, since the focus of Simons' analysis is on the rising popularity of François Bayrou, the chairman of the small, pro-European Union for French Democracy (UDF). Bayrou's growing presence in pre-election polls seems to have less to do with his positive attitude towards the European Union (which, according to at least some analysts, may also be driving off a cliff) as with the growth of what seems to be known as the "TSS principle." "TSS," conveniently enough, stands for both tout sauf Sarkozy and tout sauf Ségolène (anyone but Sarkozy/Ségolène). The last time this sort of frustration surfaced, Jean-Marie Le Pen was the one who cashed in with the second seat in the runoff election. No one wants to see that happen again; so Bayrou's centrism looks very attractive, even if it regards the EU more favorably than much of the electorate.
Of course that "anyone but" mentality almost always ends up in play in the American political process. The problem is that Americans often end up expressing it by staying away from the polls. The French seem to take their elections more seriously, which is a good thing. Just as good is that they take the whole process more seriously, thus avoiding the most important problem in the United States, which is the drowning of the electorate in two years of coverage of candidates, primaries, conventions, and, of course, the never ending opinions of Calvin Trillin's "Sabbath-Day gas-bags." There is something to be said for replacing this process with something like the shorter-duration French process, which, over the course of only a few months, has one election to narrow a field, followed by a runoff to make a final decision. Unfortunately, such reform would involve changes at the Constitutional level; so we had better brace ourselves for more of the business-as-usual (in which case we should not be surprised if it all ends up with the usual consequences)!