The French prefer old men.

The French prefer old men.

The French prefer old men.

What the foreign papers are saying.
March 14 2002 2:51 PM

Elder Statesmen

According to Libération, the French prefer old men, at least when it comes to the politicians. Nevertheless, age became an issue in France's presidential campaign this weekend, when front-runner Prime Minister Lionel Jospin took a potshot at his main rival, President Jacques Chirac, telling journalists Chirac "lacks energy. He has aged. He has been worn down by the exercise of power. He is very passive." Since Jospin is just five years younger than 69-year-old Chirac, this was, in the words of Spain's El País, "a curious imputation." The president angrily responded by accusing Jospin of ignoring the issues and creating "a climate of civil war." El País saw the incident as the start of a new, nasty phase of the campaign: "They have crossed swords under the table during the five years of 'cohabitation,' but now the daggers are drawn in plain sight."

Advertisement

The Financial Times explained that age could be a sensitive issue for Chirac, since an "important segment of the electorate has still not forgotten the experience of the late President François Mitterrand who was elected to a second seven-year term [at the age of 72] in 1988 with the country kept ignorant of a cancer that virtually incapacitated him in his final years." Libération reported that in 1988, Chirac had attacked Mitterrand's lack of energy, saying, "One needs a man with energy and force, including physical force, for international negotiations." Still, Libération noted, the two dominant French politicians of the last half-century were Charles de Gaulle and Mitterrand; the former was in power between the ages of 68 and 79, the latter between 65 and 79. The paper also noted that the Italian Senate is packed with "gray temples"—15 percent of its members are over 60—and that Carlo Azeglio Ciampi was 79 when he took over Italy's presidency in 1999.

Libération offered some explanations for France's political gerontophilia: "One is not born president, one becomes it. At an advanced age." The French "don't like people who win too easily." Most significant, perhaps, is the importance of paying ones dues as a party activist to gain broad-based support. For the first time this year, voters will elect a president to serve a five-year, rather than a seven-year, term. This and increasing longevity will probably maintain the Gallic form of ancestor worship in the years to come.

Currently running third in polls, with around 9 percent support, is 62-year-old Arlette Laguiller, described by the Times of London as "a veteran Trotskyite militant making her fifth run at the presidency." Le Monde of Paris worried about the clandestine nature of Laguiller's party, Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Struggle), which has neither an official headquarters nor even an address, other than a post-office box. "Success brings responsibilities: to open its organization to the public and to put the values of transparency into practice. … While seeking votes in pluralist elections, it still defends 'the dictatorship of the proletariat.' " According to the Times, "The success of Mme Laguiller is partly due to the way that the two-round system encourages mischief-voting in the first trip to the polls. Mme Laguiller … draws on the Gallic fondness for revolutionaries and contempt for the political establishment." Laguiller has charmed TV audiences with her rousing anti-capitalist speeches, and "Her opening greeting—'Travailleuses, Travailleurs! (Women workers, Men workers!)'—has even become a catchphrase."

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.