Monday, June 15, 2009

European Election Dispatch

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 1:03 PM

From NCJ Publisher Judy Hodgson, writing in France. Please note that a whole lot has changed in Iran since this report was penned.


"Are you voting, too, in the U.S. -- en les Etats Unis?" we were asked more than once.

Well, no. We voted last November. Obama, remember?

"Oui, but this is everyone -- the Germans, the Greeks. It's very important!"

I certainly can forgive a few egocentric French for not knowing that the U.S. was not also holding an election. Because I, an ignorant American, had no knowledge whatsoever there was a big election Sunday, June 7. It turns out that day was the second-largest election ever in the world, with 388 million people eligible to vote for deputies to the European Parliament. The Parliament, which guides the European Union, has been around for a few decades, but its significance and importance has been steadily growing, especially since most countries switched to the euro, one currency, and then -- unrelated -- the U.S. led the world into an economic meltdown.

But what a time for a political junkie (like me) to be in France: non-stop screaming headlines in the press and lively exchanges in every bar/café. The mailbox of the mini-apartment we rented in the French countryside was stuffed with mailers. This election was big and to top it off, Obama was traipsing around Europe and the Middle East making speeches every day. It doesn't get any better. Except, except ... I don't speak French.

(Sidebar: My husband is what's known in Europe as a pensioner -- retired from teaching at Humboldt State but still doing research on things he enjoys like statistics and wine judges and ... well ... how bad they are. The judges, not statistics. It's a long story. Anyway, he had a research paper published last year and was invited to present a talk in France. That's why we're here and reading the North Coast Journal on-line for a fewweeks.)

I must say, Europeans really know how to hold elections. There is none of this two- or two-and-a-half-party system. There must be six or eight or more distinct political parties. (Italy has about 17, or is it 30?)

That Sunday night Television Channel France2 had the requisite young, beautiful anchors -- one male, one female -- rapidly analyzing results while deftly engaging other eager commentators seated around a huge roundtable. The camera panned from one to another -- so polite, rarely interrupting -- while the breaking news was flashed on a gigantic 20-foot screen behind them. The commentators were either beaming with joy, or somber, or nervous, or very grave, or blustery. One actually had veins popping from his neck. Apparently there were unexpected results, some sort of major shift from the last election held in 2004. It was all so exciting and great theater. Except, except ... I don't speak French.

It doesn't matter. It turns out you can learn a lot from observing facial expressions, demeanor, voice tones, even clothing and other clues like -- haircuts. For instance, the red/blue party (yes, they pre-empted two of the three primary colors!) was doing very well. They were well dressed and a bit aloof. Turns out they are the right-center party, by far the largest in France, called the U.M.P. But for some reason the Ecologie Party -- green logo, what else? -- was quite happy, too. Dancing eyes and grins all around from the natural-fiber clothing crowd. (Although the camera did not pan below the table, I'm sure there was at least one pair of Birkenstocks.) There were representatives of the pink party (Communist Socialiste, but of course), some purple party, another far-left, and a second green called "Mo Dem" for short (they're apparently running out of designative colors). Finally, there was one guy with an impressive handlebar moustache and slightly rumpled tan jacket with a frown. He was labor. I liked him, a man genuine and sincere, but it was obvious he got trounced. And wait, there was one more guy not doing well: a plump, sweaty Dick Cheney look-alike. He tried to look cool and relaxed with no tie, but the white overstarched shirt and immaculate grooming gave him away. Maybe his was the purple party? I was getting confused. Many this wasn't so easy.

The next day I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune, now owned by the New York Times. According to the Trib's analysis, the big, big news was "mainstream parties on the left failed to make gains despite the worst economic crisis in recent memory." Voters punished some specific governments (Christian Dems in Germany led by Angela Merkel were down considerably, but still held a solid majority). Labor in Britain, too, was hit. In France U.M.P.'s increase came at the expense of socialists and other parties on the left and far left -- except for the greens (lower g) who are still considered among the "fringe" or one-issue parties. (I suspect that won't be for long. "Bio," short for biologique, is very, very big here in France.)

There, did you get all that? If you're going to travel abroad, it helps to know the players.

Later in the week, I hiked down again to the local newsstand for ex-patriots (and homesick travelers like me) and learned that the Iranians were having an election, too. And they just might throw Ahmadinejad out of office in favor of this old/new guy, Mousavi, whose supporters were wearing green! It was in all the headlines. The big vote was Friday. French TV reported massive crowds for this opponent, dancing in the streets -- dancing! And there was more than one woman letting their head
scarf slip. Could it be true?

I couldn't wait for the results Saturday so I found an Internet cafe and logged on to Al Jazeera (yes, available in English) to get the scoop:

Apparently a loss by Ahmadinejad was just wishful thinking on the part of all those subversive international journalists. They had been hanging out in elitist northern Tehran with the pointy-head liberals and not in south Tehran, the real Tehran, nor in the countryside. Ahmadinejad, the winner.


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