Ask Tom Tuesdays: What a French guy finds strange about the American presidential election process

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From time to time, my French husband Tom makes an appearance here on the ol’ blog and today is one of those days. Like most Americans, I’ve been following the election from afar — and mailed my absentee ballot — and what surprised me is the interest Tom would have in it. He’s not a US citizen and has never lived in the USA, but we faithfully watch State of the Race with Kate Bolduan on CNN every evening. As an outsider looking in, Tom is sharing some things he finds strange about the American presidential election process.

For his perspective, read on!

Ask Tom Tuesday: What a French guy finds strange about the American presidential election process

ask tom tuesdays french guy questions

New here? This is my French husband’s series. I’m often asked what my husband thinks about American (and French) culture, food, the people and more. Curious minds want to know what French guys think about all kinds of things, so today Tom is back and talking about the election.

Please note: Tom’s mother tongue is French and I don’t edit his posts in an effort to keep them as authentic as possible. He’s also not a blogger, so if you enjoy his series, please let us know in the comments, and of course submit any questions you have for him here on my contact page! He spent 4.5 hours on this for my blog (it’s hard writing in another language!) and he’s very thorough, so show him so love!

Let’s get to the post…..


I feel like many Americans might even agree with Tom about some of his points. Here, he’s sharing some insight into the French election process — the next presidential election in France will be April/May 2017 — while noting what he finds a tad strange about the American presidential election hullabaloo.

Take it away, Tom…

So, first up.

Where are the less popular candidates?

When watching the US presidential election, once we’re past the primaries, I always feel that it’s a 2-candidate election (and it’s actually probably not only a feeling but close enough to a fact), whereas in France you see way more candidates, why is that?

I think there are 2 main reasons.

  1. It’s not a 2-round election in the USA like in France

In France, the presidential election is organized in 2 rounds. No, I’m not talking about the primaries. Technically, in the first round, if one candidate gets the absolute majority (50% or more) of the recorded votes (= total ballot papers cast minus blank ballot papers + spoilt ballot papers), he/she is elected president at the end of the first round, so no second round necessary, but that never has happened in history! So we vote again.

For the 2nd round of our presidential election, only the 2 candidates who obtained the most recorded votes can participate.

That 2-round process allows smaller candidates to participate and more importantly, voters to pick them. Because in the first round, you can vote for the candidate that you really like and is in line with what you want for the country. And then for the 2nd round, you pick your next best choice if your first choice doesn’t make it, even if he/she is not your ideal candidate. That also allows for political strategies where the smaller candidates (and their ideas) who are eliminated in the first round can weigh in on the policies of the remaining candidates.

So how does this shape up in practice? Consider that during the last presidential election in 2012, the 2 major candidates (of the 2 major parties in France) only received a total of 56% of the recorded votes (the rest being spread among the other 8 candidates !).

In the US in 2012 it was 98% for the 2 major candidates (the remaining 2% was spread among 2 other candidates).

In order to attract voters for smaller candidates, the major ones can try to modify their policies. For example, if a Green Party candidate had a good showing in the first round, the 2 candidates remaining in the 2nd round can try to include or enhance « green » policies in their plans/programs. It can create alliances too.

2. On-air time isn’t balanced

In France, the rules of media coverage for a presidential campaign are pretty strict with 2 different phases.

Phase 1: Before the official campaign (which starts 2 weeks before the first round of the election) : all broadcast of candidates — either themselves or supporters — must be managed with equity. This meaning that the air time allowed on national TV and radio to each candidate must be in accordance with her/his « weigh » (like if in the polls you represent around 10% of the votes, your air time must be around 10% of the total of all the candidates).

Phase 2: From the beginning of the official campaign, it’s the principle of equality. So all the candidates in the first round — no matter how small — are allowed the exact same amount of time on national TV and radio.

People are actually paid by an independent institution to count the air time of each candidate and make sure they all get the same number of minutes.

That’s why you would never see only 2 candidates at a presidential debate in France (if it happens before the first round obviously).

I find that a bit unfair and almost undemocratic that in the US the presidential debate only shows 2 candidates out of, well actually I don’t even know how many official candidates there are…

I know there are 4, but apparently there are more, just some of them don’t appear on ballots… something I really don’t understand so I won’t event talk about that other mystery here!

Also, political TV commercials are strictly forbidden in France.

Although there are official TV campaign clips that consist of standard video clips with strict rules of content and presentation (a candidate talks about his plan/program/ideas, but can’t directly criticize another candidate). Those clips are all broadcast one after the other on public TV channels, and even the order of appearance is set by random draw.

I think it’s rather good that excessive paid commercials trashing one’s opponent are forbidden, that way you don’t get nasty clips about candidates which sometimes focus more on destroying the other than explaining their actual policies. Moreover, candidates appear as equals since the ones with less funding couldn’t have commercials on TV because of the cost. Each candidate gets his or her airtime.

It probably also contributes to the French campaigns being less nasty than ones in the USA.

american france election differences

You can vote early

I can understand the reason that would motivate someone to vote early (not able to be there on Election Day, wanting to avoid crowds at polling center, etc.), I still find it a little weird because 1) it means you can vote for a candidate without having the « full picture » (ex : what if the candidate you pick says or does something after you voted that would have made you change your mind? Oh well, it’s too late !!) 2) it probably creates more logistic and security problems (administration has to keep those ballots to count them with the rest on Election Day) 3) stupid remark, but, one could vote early and be dead by Election Day, does that vote count? (as I’ve heard some are accusing dead people of voting ! maybe that’s why ! haha)

In France you can only vote on election day, which is actually a Sunday. Funny, right? We DO do stuff on Sundays sometimes.

If you live abroad, you can vote at the embassy or consulate. If you can’t go to the polling place on election day or are unable to vote (disabled, sick, on vacation, etc.), you can proxy vote. In this case, someone is going to vote for you according to your instructions. Yes, I know it’s a bit weird too because you really have to trust that person since she’ll be free to vote for another candidate than who you pick at the polling place ! Does that exist in the US ? Don’t think so.

Americans vote on Tuesday

That is something that appears prohibitive and really not convenient to me. In France as I mentioned, we vote only on Sundays, which I think makes perfect sense since it’s when most people don’t work. Therefore, they’re more likely to be available to go vote — so higher turnout! So from my point of view, why do that on a weekday when people have to go to work, bring their kids to school and so on?? That’s a mystery to my logical mind. To be fair, I need to add that in France, polling centers are open from 8am to 7pm while I’m pretty sure they’re open on longer hours in the US.

Voting ballot process

I’ve known for quite some time that the voting ballot process was more complicated in the US, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized what a headache it could give someone. I saw a presidential ballot for the first time (Diane’s from the state of Florida), and I was like « what the hell is that ??? » It looked so complicated with tons of questions about judges and marijuana and solar power. Not to mention everything was written real small! You’d better have good sight! Or you won’t after voting.

In France, you only vote for one election at a time. Meaning that for the next presidential election, the only thing you have to choose from is between the candidates of the presidential election (not the representative, or answer if Judge A should remain in office, if you want to legalize medical marijuana and blablabla…)

french-ballots-are-simple

I think it makes things simpler. Our ballots are sheets of paper that have the candidates’ names and that’s it. No long-winded questions. Nothing else.

Also, we only vote using paper ballots and no voting machines either. It’s not that I’m against technological advances, but I think paper remains more trustworthy that electronic which can still fail sometimes and we don’t draw either. On Diane’s, she had to connect the part of an arrow. Maybe that’s just an absentee ballot thing.

In short, you go to the polling place, there on a table you find displayed piles of paper ballots. There’s a candidate’s name on each paper and then there are envelopes. You take an envelope and the candidate papers (or only the ones you want, you do what you want), you go in the polling booth, put the paper with the candidate you’re voting for in the little envelope, close it, leave the booth and proceed to vote by dropping your envelope in the ballot box . Before doing this, they check your ID and voting card. You sign your name on a register and you’re done.

Electoral college

In the US, it’s possible to lose the popular vote and still win the presidential election. It’s happened 4 times with the most recent being George W. Bush in the 2000 election.

In France, the presidential election is a « strictly » direct process, meaning that people vote directly for the candidate of their choice. The popular vote determines the president, end of story.

I find that to be the most democratic process since the winner of the election is automatically the one with the most votes. I have to admit that it’s strange for me to understand how the elected president could be someone that wasn’t picked by the majority of the American voters!

Transition period is long

I’ve always wondered why for the American presidential election process, the vote occurs in early November but the newly elected president only starts her/his term in the middle of January? The transition in France is way faster (yes for once something is faster in France!) since it usually happens less than a week after the results of the election.

american voting process

*Miscellaneous things to note*

  • You can be a candidate for the presidential election as young as 18 years old (35 in the US)
  • First and second rounds of the election are always 2 weeks apart
  • You need the “sponsorship” of 500 elected people (mayors, representatives, senators…) to officially register as a presidential candidate
  • Since there’s no VP in France, you only vote for one candidate’s name (it’s not a “ticket” with 2 names).
  • Financing in any way by companies is forbidden (no super PAC things)
  • Around 50% of the cost of the campaign is reimbursed by the state if you don’t exceed the spending ceiling (which is around 20 million euros) and the campaign counts are strictly controlled
  • Candidates need to show a declaration of assets

***

As always, a big thanks to Tom for taking the time to write on my blog. Did you learn anything? 😉

If you have a question for Tom, please email us here!

Comments…. thoughts…. questions? If you live abroad, did you vote?

*Politics have a tendency to bring out the worst in people, so I hate to even have to say this, but please be respectful in your comments. Merci.*


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Comments (31)

  • Stacey

    |

    Great post Tom!

    I think you’ve summed it up very nicely and can say that as a Canadian living in the United States I find these things strange myself- especially the electoral college.

    I was talking to a colleague the other day about that and he was explaining how it works, and I commented the same thing that it seems pretty UNdemocratic that someone can win the popular vote and then not be elected. If the electoral college gets the say in the end why not just let them pick the president and be done with it? Why the pretense of giving people the vote if the electoral college can essentially overrule it? Just some of my thoughts and questions about the system.

    I really like the French system of equal airtime for all candidates and no nasty remarks about the other one. I really want to hear more about each candidate’s platform not the dirt they’ve dug up on the others that may or may not be true. But then I’m not a citizen here so I don’t get a vote anyway! 🙂
    Stacey recently posted…Fun and FREE in London!My Profile

    Reply

    • Tom

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      Thanks for stopping by Stacey! I actually find that pretty unbelievable that the electoral college doesn’t actually have an obligation to respect the voters’ pick, even if in fact it happens extremely rarely that they don’t follow the popular vote. I’d also like to add something that I didn’t mention in my post (it’s long enough as it is! haha) it’s that the rule of the “winner takes all” that amplifies the possible distortion between the popular vote and the final result. That system also makes some states more important to the eyes of the candidates (the famous “swing states”) than other, thus resulting in candidates pretty much ignoring certain states to focus on just a few of them… kind of weird when you’re supposed to become the President of an entire nation… thanks again for your input 😉

      Reply

  • Laure

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    Nice job, Tom !
    I apologize for my English – as a French reader, I would like to add that in France, the votes are counted by a few citizens who volunteer for it at the end of the day. You just have to show up at the polling place and say you would like to participate in the counting – here at the New York consulate, some people bring their kids to show them how it’s done. It’s a very interesting experience : one person opens the enveloppes, another one reads the names aloud, etc. The whole thing is all about transparency and building trust, and I really like that. Not very modern, but quite efficient ! (I think French citizens abroad can vote online under certain conditions, but slipping the enveloppe into the ballot box is a nice ritual for me, I’m glad we don’t use machines yet.)

    Reply

    • Tom

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      Merci Laure ! I’m not the one that’s going to say anything about your Eenglish so don’t worry about that! Plus it actually looks very good (at least to my French eyes). I’m really glad that you mentioned the “dépouillement” (ballot counting) in that way because I actually as a kid used to attend that whole process with my parents! And I enjoyed it (especially the blank ballot when people would write things on the paper). I agree with you and think it really brings transparency on the overall process. About the online voting for abroad citizens, I thought I read somewhere that it was available for some elections (législatives) but not for the presidential one. Merci encore pour ton commentaire 🙂

      Reply

  • CaptainMM

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    Tom for President! Oh shucks. Not native born. Oh well!

    Reply

    • Tom

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      Haha thanks, CaptainMM! Not only was I not born in the US but I also don’t think I’m crooked enough to be a good candidate 😉

      Reply

  • Cal_expat

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    Tom, everything you say is true, but it’s not the most difference in what I see. You get to watch CNN, but not regular TV programs. Those are full of commercials (yeah, we all know that), but that includes a lot of campaign-related commercials. And that’s where I see a big difference: most of those commercials are not about the fact that guy A is the best and you should vote for him. No, it’s mainly about “I’m guy A and I endorse this commercial”, and said commercial is all about how guy B is bad for you/the country/te county/etc.
    It looks very aggressive and mean to me.

    Reply

    • Tom

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      Bonjour Agnès ! Oui ici en France j’ai uniquement accès à CNN, et je dois dire que ça me suffit ! il y a déjà énormément de coupures pub, mais je vois ce que tu veux dire avec les pubs politiques. Ils en ont montré quelques extraits sur des chaines françaises et je pense qu’à force de voir cela les citoyens doivent vite atteindre la saturation, et au final ça ne doit pas aider à voir la politique sous un angle positif, donc je pense que sur le long terme c’est plus contre productif qu’autre chose. Je ne vois pas comment on peut être attiré par la politique quand on voit les politiciens passer leur temps à presque s’insulter par pubs interposées…A méditer je pense. Merci en tout cas pour ton éclairage 😉

      Reply

  • Jo-Anne

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    Different countries have different rules and such reading this both France and the U S seem confusing but that is only because I am used to the Aussie way
    Jo-Anne recently posted…Broken Bones and Pain, My Mum Is AmazingMy Profile

    Reply

    • Tom

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      That’d be interesting for me to know about the Aussie way, as I have no idea of how it works down under! do you guys have a “president” per say? I must shamefully admit that I’m always confused with commonwealth countries and the way it’s organized. So if you feel the motivation to explain to me, do not hesitate, Jo-Anne 🙂

      Reply

  • fiona

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    Thanks for explaining the election process in the States Tom. I had no idea for instance, that they used machines or had to vote on other issues at the time time. I was astonished last night to see Donald Trump on the news, telling Wisconsin voters who have already voted (postal voters?) that they could change their minds and vote again! What!? Absurd!
    In the UK we have a paper slip printed with three names and we put a cross next to the person we want to vote for…job done. I like the French idea of volunteers turning up to count the votes and voting on Sundays…here it’s always on a Thursday and the polls are open from0700h to 2200h.
    Your English is impec Tom, wish my French was the same. Bonne journée.

    Reply

    • Tom

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      You’re very welcome Fiona! I have to confess that even if I knew a few things about the election process in the US I still had to do some research as I’m an outsider on that matter. The UK way seems pretty simple too! but to make it easier in France you don’t even need a pen! haha I still don’t really understand why it seems that almost only in France we don’t vote on a weekday, as it’s what makes more sense to me to have people available to go to the polls, even if it actually doesn’t seem to have the greatest positive impact on turnout as we could expect. Thanks for encouraging me with my English 🙂

      Reply

  • Mark

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    Bonjour Tom, Great post. You write In English well. If you think the electoral college is peculiar, have Diane explain “gerrymandering” to you. It really tramples democracy.

    Reply

    • Tom

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      Bonjour Mark, thanks for your compliment! I asked Diane about gerrymandering a few days ago and although the explanation was clear it’s still a foggy concept in my mind, so I’ll have to get back to it. Bonne journée 🙂

      Reply

  • chouette22

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    What an excellent post Tom! Thank you very much for taking the time for this comparative study. I am going to use it with my students in my French college class this coming Monday, one day before the election.

    Reply

    • Tom

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      Hi Chouette (nice nickname by the way!). You’re giving me too much credit! so did you end up using the post? were your students interested by the subjects? and are they aware of the elections in the US? (I mean it’s everywhere in the media but I don’t know if teenagers keep themselves informed about that or if they just don’t care that much). Thanks a lot for stopping by!

      Reply

  • ToddV

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    Thanks Tom. Very interesting on the French system. As regards the Electoral College, going back in history , the United States was formed as a democratic “Republic” , not a “pure” Democracy. The purpose of the Electoral College is to balance voting power across states so no one region of the country can gain too much control. If a president is elected by a simple majority of votes, a candidate who is wildly popular in one region (e.g., Ted Cruz in Texas, Mitt Romney in Utah) can ignore smaller regions and campaign only where large majorities are possible. Or a candidate who kills in California and New York can write off “flyover country” completely.
    If, however, the Electoral College elects a president, a candidate who is wildly popular in one region must also prevail in a number of sub-elections to win. The Electoral College arguably ensures a better result for the country as a whole than the purely democratic power play wherein 51 percent of voters matter and 49 percent of voters don’t. So again, this arose from the United States being formed as a Republic. Nevertheless, there has been a significant movement to move to a more pure “one person one vote” approach for the election of the President.
    The below article also walks through even more detail on how it works. The Trump factor could bring into play rarely seen elements – such as “faithless electors” – if this occurred, things could become very controversial and dramatic.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/everything-you-should-know-about-the-electoral-college/

    ToddV

    Reply

    • Tom

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      Hi Todd. Thank you very much for your very thorough comment. It enlightened my vision of things and I have to say that yes the “state counting vote” does make sense in the way you explained. But on the other hand, as I explained in my post, that system also appears to give more importance to some places than others because they’re not deeply marked as being on one side or the other side (the famous swing states)… I guess it’s pretty much impossible to find a perfectly balanced system.
      I skimmed through the article you linked and will take time to read it thoroughly. So do you think we’ll see “faithless electors” in the electoral college this year? I personally doubt it could happen given the tense climate of this election, but what’s your take on it? Thanks again for your input Todd!

      Reply

  • Terry

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    In general, I doubt that any of them work all that well–just do the best you can. I don’t think the voting system is to blame for Donald Trump. Other outrageous people have found there way to power under various systems. How about Berlusconi? How about the near-election in Austria?

    Reply

    • Tom

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      That’s a very interesting comment Terry! We can even see a lot of examples in history where the democratic choice leads to an undemocratic end… choice by a majority doesn’t necessarily equal a good or the best choice, what’s to blame? deception? human nature? hard to tell. Thanks for adding that thought

      Reply

  • Linda Patton

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    Thanks, Tom. Very good, very informative. And we learn again that the French are fairer, kinder, better organized, and far more sensible. Really, this election year has been a colossal embarrassment. We need someone French to come over and straighten things out.

    Reply

    • Tom

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      Thanks Linda! Some aspects of the french system are undoubtedly more fair, this being said, politicians over here are mainly of the same kind as over there, so to be honest I unfortunately don’t think a french politician would be the ultimate solution 😉 Have a good day.

      Reply

  • Ashley

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    Interesting! I don’t know anything about French politics even though I live here so these points are great insights. I’m also baffled by the electoral college. In Canada, we also tend to follow the US election quite closely.

    Reply

    • Tom

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      Hi Ashley! we’re almost on the same level here since I don’t know anything about Canadian politics (except the name of the prime minister) although to my credit I don’t live there 🙂 it looks like nowadays the US elections make headlines all over the world… thanks for your comment

      Reply

  • Margo Lestz

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    Thanks for the outsider perspective of the electoral process. I am an American living in France, and one thing that I definitely appreciate in France is the limit to, and the equality of, airtime the candidates get. It’s fair to everyone, and the public doesn’t have to listen to a lot of childish arguing. The American presidential campaigns were really embarrassing. 🙁

    Reply

    • Tom

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      I totally agree with you Margo! I really think that the best part of our system is really the fact that we don’t have to listen to as many childish arguments as you mention it (even if they do exist here too, they’re just more limited because of those campaign regulations). Yet I fear our next presidential election a bit in April/May as I think we’ll see the level going a bit lower than usual between candidates, as it seems that now in politics the motto is “my opponent goes low” well “then I go lower”…

      Reply

  • Nell (the Pigeon Pair and Me)

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    Thanks for sharing this Tom – all very interestin. I’d never really thought about the days of the week – here in the UK we vote on a Thursday, but you’re right, it would make more sense to do it on the weekend. Especially because UK polling stations are often schools, which then have to close for the day….#AllAboutFrance

    Reply

    • Tom

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      So I guess in the UK election days make at least kids happy! Your comment gives me the opportunity to say that in France (to my knowledge) we only vote in schools and city halls. So now that’s even weirder that schools close on election days in the UK, because then that means people have to watch their kids, so I guess most of the time thay have to take a day off to do that, right? or do the kids help count the ballots? haha Have a nice day!

      Reply

  • Phoebe | Lou Messugo

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    Hi Tom, as a European in France I find the whole US election system mystifying and hideously long drawn out. I really appreciate how short the campaign is in France but unfortunately I can’t actually vote here (not being French). I can’t vote in UK either so I’m effectively voiceless which upsets me! Anyway, I found your post very interesting because although I feel well informed about the French system I still learnt a few things about it (like the fairness of air time). Seen through your eyes I definitely like the sound of the French system more than the US. Thanks for taking the time to write this and for sharing it with #AllAboutFrance
    Phoebe | Lou Messugo recently posted…Sunday Photo – 13 November 2016My Profile

    Reply

    • Tom

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      You’re welcome Phoebe! on the vote of foreign people in France (something I could have added to my already very long post) indeed only french citizens can vote for the presidential election. So far if you’re a European citizen (which you still are at least for a little while if you’re a UK citizen) you can only vote and be a candidate for the “élections municipales” (mayors and city councils)and european elections. Thanks again for stopping by 🙂

      Reply

  • Paulita

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    Some interesting observations. One thing I’d really like to see is a shorter election process. Also, changing the voting day to Sunday would be nice. I think we used to require equal coverage of presidential candidates, but no more.
    Paulita recently posted…Dreaming of France — NatureMy Profile

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