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3Qs: An up-close look at the French presidential election

This weekend, France elected a new president, socialist François Hollande, who will replace the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. Alan Schroeder, professor of journalism in the College of Arts, Media and Design, traveled to France to observe the presidential debates and the French electoral process for the week preceding the election. We asked him to share his experience and compare the French electoral process to the ongoing presidential race in the U.S.

What lasting impressions do you have from experiencing the French presidential debates and election process firsthand? Did anything in particular stand out or surprise you?

What particularly impressed me about French presidential debates is the freewheeling format. Basically, the two candidates sit facing each other and engage in an open dialogue, with minimal intervention from the moderators and few fixed rules other than an equal distribution of time. The Hollande-Sarkozy debate was supposed to last two-and-a-half hours, but it ended up running nearly three, which is twice as long as the typical American debate.  Our presidential candidates prefer debates with short response times and little-to-no candidate interaction. French candidates do not hesitate to sound like policy wonks, and they aren’t afraid to be aggressive with each other.

How does the French election process and media coverage compare to that of the U.S. presidential race?

The key difference lies in the timing. In France, after the first-round vote (similar to primary elections in the U.S.), the presidential campaign lasts only two weeks, and in the final 48 hours before the voting, no campaigning is allowed. American presidential campaigns never really end — speculation has already begun about 2016. Also, campaign commercials are prohibited in France, so you can watch television without being bombarded by paid political announcements. Interestingly, in spite of these differences, press coverage of the French presidential campaign feels pretty familiar, with the media fixating on a lot of the same things as we see in the U.S.

How has the French media, as well as media around the world, reacted to Sarkozy’s loss to Hollande?

Sarkozy’s loss was not exactly a surprise, because he had been trailing in the polls, but it nonetheless represents a dramatic shift in the political landscape, not just of France, but also of Europe. Hollande’s election is being cast as part of a larger story about European economic uncertainty. François Hollande, the man, has gotten somewhat lost in the coverage — of course this could also stem from his lackluster persona. Sarkozy may not have been beloved by his countrymen, but he was a very vivid presence on the scene, and in that sense I think he will be missed.

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