To Revamp U.S. Democracy, Look to France
MIKE MURPHY: I'm a right-wing Republican with a terrible secret.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is commentator and media consultant Mike Murphy.
MURPHY: I like France, which can be a real joy-kill when I get together with my wing-nut buddies. After they finish griping about Al Gore's global warming movie and Hillary's plan for world domination, the conversation inevitably seems to darken and turn toward my pals in Paris.
I hit back with a bunch of chin music about how 100 years from now, when the Chinese run the world, we Americans are going to be just like the French, all grumpy and difficult and fixated on our days of glory. But my friends never buy it, and they certainly aren't going to like hearing that after spending last week in Paris observing the French presidential campaign, I actually think the French have some good ideas about how to run an election.
American politics are all about free speech, but the French care more about equality, which means that the French presidential candidates, all 12 of them, each get exactly the same amount of TV and radio time, just 45 total minutes. So minor candidates like communists or a guy named Frederique whose campaign appears to be mostly about his hunting dog, get exactly as many TV spots as the two major party candidates, and that's only the beginning.
I like the way the French government monitors TV and radio newscasts with a stopwatch to make sure all the 12 candidates, including Frederique and his faithful companion, get exactly the same amount of coverage. Talk about fair and balanced.
The campaigns must also follow rules of civil discourse. That's right, rudeness is frowned upon in French politics. No insults in TV spots, campaign posters only in certain places, and for the last two days of the campaign there is a sit-down-and-shut-up rule: no TV ads and no one, not even the media, can release a last-minute poll.
It's all designed to give French voters a little peace and quiet as they ponder le big decision. The only way around all this is the Internet, which is unregulated and noisy and therefore right at the center of this year's French campaign.
My American colleagues initially frowned at this gag rule. What, no last-minute rallies, no shiv-in-the-ribs TV ads when it's too late to respond? Why, that's not American, which I guess is the point. But the more we thought about it, the more it seemed a little respite for voters at the end of an election might not be so bad both for weary citizens and exhausted campaign staffers.
In the end, French voters are faced with three distinct choices. My money is on center-rightist Nicolas Sarkozy, who I like because his first solution for most problems seems to involve a police water cannon. But socialist glamour gal Segolene Royal and self-proclaimed sexy centrist Francois Bayrou are close behind Sarkozy in the polls with loony-tunes rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen trailing the big three.
After seeing the system in action myself, I think I'll keep defending France, reminding my conservative pals that the French system works hard to give every candidate a fair and equal shot while giving French voters a democracy with real choices. That strikes me as American as the Statue of Liberty.
NORRIS: Mike Murphy is a writer and Republican media consultant.