A French Election American-Style

PARIS – Primary elections in France? The idea that a large number of voters should designate the presidential candidates of the major political parties was born in the United States, and we French have long believed that such things were American to the core. But has the political primary now been successfully transplanted to Europe?

Until recently, nothing would have appeared more foreign to French political culture. Choosing candidates has been an affair confined solely to political parties. The idea of ​​a public “tournament” to select a party’s nominee was first proposed in the 1980’s by the right-wing politician Charles Pasqua, but without success. It was ultimately the usually more America-phobic French left that successfully adopted the practice in 1995, in order to nominate Lionel Jospin for president, and then, in a more dramatic chain of events, to nominate Sègoléne Royal in 2006. But neither was as monumental as the Socialists’ most recent primary.

Based on the Italian experience – also on the political left – of 2005 and 2007, the Socialist party has, in effect, decided that its candidate for the 2012 presidential election would be decided on the basis of an expanded primary. Not only would registered Socialist voters be able to participate; so would all voters who agree to sign a moral charter attesting to the values of the left and were willing to donate a nominal sum of one euro to the party.

The Socialists had initially envisioned a process, following the American example, which was to include successive votes, beginning at the departmental level before continuing to a nationwide poll. But, given France’s size, the party finally decided that it was preferable to limit itself to one national vote, but in two stages, which took place on October 9 and 16.