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LES ECHOS

A French Presidential Campaign That Has Missed Its Mark

France must not give in to the trap of democratic disillusionment, writes Le Monde’s editor-in-chief. Though the campaign has lacked honest debate about the country’s challenges, French voters on Sunday must exercise their ballot with maximum attention.

A French Presidential Campaign That Has Missed Its Mark
Eric Izraelewicz

PARIS - A very odd presidential campaign is coming to an end. It's been called boring, empty, and insignificant. It's said to have only come to life through petty controversies, symbolically strong but with no real substance, like debate over the presence of halal meat in French butcher shops and calls to change the system for obtaining driver's license.

There was no shortage of fireworks over the Socialist Primary, France losing its triple-A bonds rating, the Toulouse shootings and inroads by the anti-system candidates – and yet, the country just seems gloomy. That's in part because this election comes in the midst of the worst global economic crisis since 1929. This crisis has weighed on the atmosphere of the campaign as well as the candidates' platforms.

And the crisis also helps explains why on the three key issues facing France in the future – Employment, Europe and the Environment – the candidates seemed to avoid discussion.

The French people will have to choose their new President on Sunday, and they deserved to know each candidate's vision and ambition for the country's future. They spoke of France's triple A at length but failed to discuss the triple E.

E for Employment. The financial crisis put jobs back in the spotlight. "Unemployment is the cancer of our society," commentators declared 30 years ago. The problem has only gotten worse. How do we start creating jobs again? How do we jumpstart growth? Many ideas were presented, but the answers were far from convincing. Just like the French people, who are more realistic than we think, most candidates know that the crisis hitting the French economy (especially its debt) is much worse than they admit in their rallies, and that sooner or later, like each of our European neighbors, we will have to make brutal changes to our public finances, our welfare state and our industrial system.

But the candidates chose not to address these issues, each in their own way, by blaming Europe, a useful scapegoat, a "colander Europe," a "German Europe," an "austerity Europe."

E for Europe. With its cold and anonymous institutions, incomprehensible directives and cumbersome methods, the European Union is hard to love. But Europe is more than ever our future. The anti-European atmosphere felt throughout the campaign is particularly disappointing, and it is very frightening for what comes next. Europe isn't just a continent, a market, a power. It is a set of values that our future President must protect.

Politically, Europe means representative democracy, public freedoms, the rule of law, secularism, openness and tolerance. Economically, it is a unique organization that wants to blend economic efficiency and social justice, individual freedom and collective solidarity – it is a solidarity meant to thrive inside each nation, between the member states and toward poorer countries in the world. These "models' may be going through a crisis, but that is not a reason to give up on the underlying values. Especially since Europe is France's only answer to an increasingly multipolar world on issues like security and the economy.

E as in Environment. The world with its 7 billion people is facing another challenge widely ignored by candidates during the campaign: the environment. "Our house is burning and we're looking the other way," said then French President Jacques Chirac at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002. Since then, the fire has spread. Natural disasters are multiplying, biodiversity is deteriorating and global warming is getting worse. During the 2007 campaign, signing Nicolas Hulot's "environmental pact" became a requirement for all candidates, and pushed newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy to create the Environment Roundtable (Grenelle de l'Environnement.)

The financial crisis didn't stop the environmental one, but it did push it off the agenda of most French politicians. Elsewhere in Europe, the Greens have managed to keep their issues in the spotlight. In France, there was little talk of environmental taxes, energy strategy or green industry. To overcome the financial crisis we need a new growth model that sees the environment as an opportunity rather than a handicap.

Despite all these problems, we should not give in to the democratic disillusionment that is growing in France, especially among the youth. The temptation of abstention is strong, but we should fight against it. First, because suffrage is a hard-earned right that many across the world are denied. But also because for all the criticism, this election does offer real choices. And finally, because among the candidates there are some that must be put aside because they are a threat to democracy, to the republic and to the values that we mentioned earlier. In French elections, the saying goes: "In the first round you choose, in the second, you eliminate." In order to have a real debate between the two rounds, this time we must make sure to use the first round to eliminate.

Read the original article in French

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