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France, Changing?: What This Week’s Elections Mean for France and the World

France is sometimes called the barometer of Europe. It acts in some ways as one of Europe’s traditional powers: joining forces with Germany to represent the eurozone or teaming up with the United Kingdom on international diplomacy. Yet its economic sluggishness and lugubrious bureaucracy also draw comparisons to its southern neighbors, Italy and Spain.

Despite its supposed indifference to innovation and change, I’ve noticed in my few weeks here quite a few changes from my last significant stay here in 2008. Ever more large grocery stores and malls are cropping up, the former offering to let you pick up groceries purchased online from your car. Electric car plug-in points are being built in parking garages. Even the railways are slowly being privatized!

Yet France’s economy is still a long way from reliable growth. After a relatively noticeable recovery from the 2008 crash, France has failed to register any significant growth since. Taking that graph back to 1978, one notices that France has never been able to establish over one percent quarterly GDP growth in recent history. Its economic sluggishness mirrors its aging population, though augmented by significant immigration.

Change, But What Kind?

In English we sometimes have to ask what one means when they ask for change, as this 2008 Onion article reminds us. Luckily that isn’t an issue in the French language. Yet a series of recent French elections have inundated the “old guard” of French politics with cries for significant change.

This Sunday France faces the second round of its Departmental Elections. Representatives are elected from 4,032 newly-redrawn cantons in order to select departmental (a département is somewhere between a state and county government) councils, which number 101. These numbers don’t include France’s 342 arrondissements, 36,552 communes, or 27 regions. This administrative complexity is enough to confuse even the French: a scene from movie “The Spanish Apartment” shows the paperwork necessary for a French person to a study in Spain literally filling the screen.

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The necessity to reduce paperwork has prompted a significant change: the reduction of regions from 22 to 13. Whether or not this reduces the paperwork hassle, it has no direct effect over the political composition of the country over the long haul. Still, it indicates France does sense the need for change.

A more significant change is being previewed in this week’s elections. While local councils will never have the same power as central government, the rise over the past two decades of the populist National Front is increasingly causing chagrin among both the leftist Socialist Party and the center-right UMP. Even though it did not take as large a percentage of seats in the first round as expected, the National Front surpassed the ruling Socialist Party and may still eclipse the UMP in total seats.

While the National Front, or FN, and many other “far right” European parties claim ‘conservatism,’ it is more akin to the conservatism of Europe in the 1930s than something recognizable in recent American politics. Not only does FN want rigid immigration regulation, it also sees France falling prey to forces of globalization and the free market. Thus its economic policies resemble the Socialist Party more than the UMP.

What Does this Mean for the U.S.?

All this may seem distant and irrelevant to the American public, yet events such as Charlie Hebdo and the eurozone’s struggles show the continuing relevance of European-American collaboration. Europeans and Americans alike face the threat of ISIS and both of their economies must deal with competition from burgeoning powers like China and India.

Neither of the three largest parties on the ballot this Sunday will necessarily solve France’s economic or social malaise. Yet individuals and communities desiring growth, especially in the enterprising parts of Parisian suburbs where I live, may prove unlikely allies to American citizens despite their government’s failings.

Stay tuned to hear more about life in Paris’ suburbs in upcoming months.

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