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A Tale of Two Democracies: What It Is Like to Vote in the United States Compared to France?

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In France, elections are a two-round process. In the 1st round, maximum campaign spending for each candidate is --16,851,000 and in the 2nd round, --22,509,000 can be spent by each of the two finalists. Most of this has to be raised privately, but a good chunk is paid for by the taxpayers.

If a candidate for president gets enough signatures to be on the ballot (amazingly, only 500 signatures are needed among all elected officials!), they get --153,000 before the first round, for their campaign. If they get 5% or more in the first round, taxpayers give that candidate 47.5% of the top limit, or --8,004,000.   Less than 5%, they get 4.75%, or --800,423.

This considerable sum of taxpayer money for any candidate who garners only 5% of the vote in the first round assures that a broad spectrum of political persuasions are kept in the political media limelight.

This year, in addition to the frontrunners socialist Hollande and conservative Sarkozy, three parties got at least 5% of the vote: The far right wing Front National, the anti-Wall Street left wing Front de Gauche and the centrist, left leaning Mouvement Democrate. Trust me, there are serious philosophical and ideological differences between the two main parties. There is a real choice between them. Keeping three other parties in the limelight, two that are diametrically opposed, helps keep the political system honest and the citizenry much more engaged.

In the first round, there were 10 presidential candidates. The fact that one half of them got at least 5% of the vote and will continue to make noise in the media and on future campaign trails is indicative of a robust, confident democracy, from the far left, to the center to the far right.

The other five parties that got less than 5%, in descending order of success: the Greens, an anti-capitalist New Party, the communist Workers' Struggle, the conservative Gaullist Stand Up Republic and a party called Solidarity and Progress, which believe it nor not, has connections to Lyndon LaRouche! Go figure!

Needless to say, if you can't find a party to vote for in the first round of France's elections, you are either an anarchist, in a coma or are dead from the neck up!

If a candidate passes to the second round of presidential voting (the top two candidates from round one, this year the socialists, who went on to win the presidency and the conservatives), they will each get 47.5% of the campaign total paid for by the taxpayers, or --10,691,000.

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Individual contributions are a maximum of --4,600 per cycle per contributor per candidate, presidential and legislative in both rounds. These funds must be paid to a registered political party. Corporations, unions and any other legal entity are forbidden to contribute to any candidates, parties or political campaigns. Only real physical French citizens can contribute, to the political party of the candidate, and of course the parties and candidates seek donations from French individuals.

Political parties do get greedy and are caught spending more than these incredibly modest spending limits. There was the Affaire de la Sempap in the early 90s that involved about --15 million.

And in 2010 there was the Bettencourt-Woerth scandal, where the billionaire heir to the L'Oreal fortune said they gave envelopes of money to various politicians, including just replaced president Sarkozy, who unlike George W. Bush, is losing his immunity from prosecution and will likely be charged with fraud. Ditto Jacques Chirac, who lost his immunity when he stepped down as president, and was convicted (remember, these are presidents we are talking about!) for ghost jobs when he was mayor of Paris years ago.

But it is not all as rosy as all that. The French, being clever people and knowing that money is the milk of political success, are getting around these restrictions by creating microparties. A comparison to the United States would be the old PACs, before the Supremes unleashed the monster Super PACs on the land. In addition to the --4,600 limit citizens can donate directly to candidates, each citizen can give up to --7,500 per voting cycle to as many political parties as they want. And twenty years ago, there were about 20 parties. Today? Including all the microparties, there are now around 280!

So, the loophole is to simply establish political parties, usually a party around one politician or a local area in-country. Political parties can legally transfer funds among themselves in France. So, a wealthy donor can give many --7,500 donations to these microparties, knowing that they are aligned to their point of view and that likely, much of this money will end up transferred to the big party desired that is supporting their candidate for president.

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The conservatives for sure and the socialists, less so, are sitting fat and happy over this debasement of the law, but the smaller parties are screaming bloody murder and the French people are upset by the system. Hollande got a majority of socialist/left wing seats during the legislative votes last month. Since this system is really helping the conservatives much more than the socialists, it will be interesting to see if Hollande's mandate can stand up to and resist the sweet fruit of bank accounts full of cash to do battle with their adversaries. Money as we know, and the power that comes with it, is intoxicating, even if you are less intoxicated than your enemy.

At the end of the day, especially now that the US has unfettered corporate and secret super PACs, the amounts of money we are talking about in France are chump change compared to the US's multi-billion dollar campaign colossuses.  

And as everywhere else on Earth, the US, Japan and in all open democracies, France has its fair share of corruption, in the name of crony contracts and kickbacks. But unlike the United States since 2000, people do get caught and do go to jail. Reagan's administration was the most indicted, convicted and imprisoned in US history and some fish got grilled over the savings and loan corruption in the 1980s. But since then"there is an outside chance a crook may have to pay a token fine, while never having to admit guilt.

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Jeff is the author of 44 Days Backpacking in China: The Middle Kingdom in the 21st Century, with the United States, Europe and the Fate of the World in Its Looking Glass (2013), Reflections in Sinoland -- Musings and Anecdotes from the Belly of (more...)

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