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U.S. Images Worry French in Their Presidential Race

April 24, 1988|Stanley Meisler | Stanley Meisler is The Times' correspondent in Paris.

PARIS — Many French intellectuals are fretting these days over what they call the "Americanization" of their presidential election campaign. In the American way, they lament, image is replacing ideology and French voters are now more interested in look than in logic.

In a commentary for the influential Paris newspaper Le Monde a few weeks ago, political scientist Alain Duhamel found four "transatlantic characteristics"--a fancy way of saying American influences--in the current campaign that comes to an end with a final runoff May 8: obsession with television and its techniques; emphasis on personality; use of professional consultants, and a non-ideological tone of the rhetoric.

"The politicians treat voters like babies," Duhamel wrote. "They fleece their rivals, claw their opponents and pay consultants; it's always the American syndrome. The relationship of the candidates and the experts resembles more and more that of the tennis champions and their coach-gurus."

Duhamel did not think these methods would work in France.

"The paradox of the campaign is that the citizens have evolved more quickly than the political class," he said. "The voters have become adults even though the campaign staffs are still trying to treat them like infants." But, though he did not believe these techniques would work, Duhamel had no doubt that they were American.

Yet for an American seeing his first French presidential election, the campaign is far more startling for its differences than its resemblances to an American race. Despite what the French commentators say day in and day out, there could hardly be anything more un-American than this French election.

For one thing, French presidential candidates submit to a kind of television questioning that would strike terror into the hearts of most American candidates.

French television has a host of "Meet the Press"-type programs, but, unlike "Meet the Press," the French shows are all on prime time and run at least 90 minutes. Journalists ask tough and searching questions; when they don't get a real reply, they keep probing relentlessly.

These shows expose the logic, wit, education and personality of a candidate. Under fire for so long, a candidate cannot really fool the television audience. French voters know their candidates well.

Most French candidates handle this with relative ease. They have long learned how to think swiftly on their feet and reply in well-structured, grammatically correct French. It is hard, however, to imagine any U.S. presidential candidate lasting very long in this kind of ordeal.

At the same time, French television is free of all those nasty, negative advertising spots that bristle through the airwaves during American election time. France simply does not allow them or any other kind of paid commercial.

Instead, the government allots each of the nine official candidates an equal share of free time on the two government-owned television channels. Since they are presented in an order determined by lot, a viewer may have to sit through a good deal of minor stuff before hearing the candidates that count. On the first night, for example, environmentalist Antoine Waechter appeared between conservative Raymond Barre and communist Andre Lajoinie; Trotskyite Arlette Laguiller and extreme rightist Jean Marie Le Pen argued with each other.

These official television appearances are regulated closely. Candidates must spend a good deal of time doing their own talking. They may run video clips on their time but cannot use the image of someone else without permission. That pretty much destroys a staple of American television spots: Premier Jacques Chirac cannot run a clip ridiculing President Francois Mitterrand without the latter's unlikely agreement.

The result is rather lackluster television. In a recent front-page cartoon by Le Monde cartoonist Plantu, a father warns his mischievous children, "If you do that again, I will make you watch all nine candidates on television."

The French love polls as much as Americans. Six major firms have sampled sentiment on this election continuously for more than a year. Yet no member of the public could see or hear polls in the week before the first round of voting today, and no one will see or hear them in the week before the second round May 8. Under French law, no poll may be published for a week before an election.

The absence of polls instills the last week of a French campaign with nervous suspense. That's a rare electoral feeling for an American.

French presidential candidates also seem to conserve their energies better than American candidates. Most candidates do not crisscross the countryside. Instead, they fly out from Paris for a few hours on the evening of a campaign rally.

The rallies are rather old-fashioned affairs: Local parties try to drum up the faithful to hear the candidate for whom they are voting, no matter what he says. They are more a way of encouraging militants than of soliciting votes.

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