France is about to enter a new era. With 74-year-old President Jacques Chirac—the last of Charles de Gaulle's protégés—retiring after 12 years in office, a new generation is set to take over. The first round of voting, on April 22, will be a three-way tussle involving Socialist Ségolène Royal, conservative former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and moderate François Bayrou. (Far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen is currently polling at about 15 percent.)
Eight other candidates—including Communists Olivier Besancenout and Marie-George Buffet, Green Dominique Voynet, and anti-globalization activist José Bové—will join the four front-runners in Round 1. If no candidate gets 50 percent or more, the top two vote-getters will advance to Round 2 in May.
More than ever before, this campaign is long on style and short on substance. All three main candidates have attempted to boost their popularity with puffy, best-selling manifestos. Bayrou hawked Project of Hope, which is almost exactly like that other book, except Bayrou is not black, not American, and not running for president … of the United States. Royal wrote Now, while Sarkozy laid out his personal and political agenda in Together.
Sarkozy has also taken advantage of his country's current—and très American—obsession with its politicians' love lives by publishing Testimony, which details, among other topics, his stormy relationship with his unfaithful wife, Cécilia. (Testimony is the only one of the main candidates' books available in English.) A few romans à clef delving into the Sarkozys' marriage have also become best sellers in France.
Meanwhile, rumors are flying that Royal has broken with her longtime love (but not hubby), Socialist Party Secretary General François Hollande. Since she has already been plagued by some laughable gaffes—such as seeming to call for Quebec's independence and believing the Taliban still rule Afghanistan—more personal revelations can only reinforce the media's perception that Royal is not a "serious" candidate.
This election cycle, French voters seem to be turning to the Internet in greater numbers. You can find YouTube videos full of "macaca" moments à la française. Smart blogs, including one written by the smoldering grandson of former Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France, cleverly call out the candidates' faux pas, while this silly time-waster makes an animated Sarkozy disco on your command.
French musicians are jumping in as well, joining together in a sort of "Rap the Vote" initiative designed to increase political involvement among France's disaffected youth. The effort seems to be working: Voter registration is up in depressed areas most affected by last year's violent riots, double the national average.
But beyond the campaign fluff of best sellers, blogs, and blunders, something deeper is happening in French politics.
Every night, Les Guignols de l'Info(picture TheDaily Show performed by puppets) lampoons the increasingly polarized and vicious tone of the election and the fact that politicians are playing nonstop to voters' baser instincts.