Sunday, April 22, 2012

Plus Ça Change...

Observing the current French elections from across the Celtic Sea brings back memories of another French election, 42 years ago, which I observed from a much closer vantage point.

During the 1973-1974 school year, I was part of an exchange program between the University of California and the University of Bordeaux. In the course of that year, it seemed as though nearly every major European country had a change of government, many of them unexpectedly.

Conservative British Prime Minister Ted Heath, buffeted by the 1973 oil crisis and a coal miner strike, called a snap election in February and wound up being replaced by Labour’s Harold Wilson. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt resigned in May after his personal assistant, Günter Guillaume, was revealed to be an East German spy. Brandt was succeeded Helmut Schmidt. Francisco Franco was firmly ensconced in power in Spain, as he had been since the 1930s. But he had to find a new head of government after his prime minister, Luis Carrero Blanco, was killed by Basque terrorists in a car bombing in December. Italian Prime Minister Mariano Rumor resigned and reshuffled his government a couple of times during the year, which was par for the course in Italy in those days.

France unexpectedly held an election in May after President Georges Pompidou (successor to Charles de Gaulle) died suddenly in office on April 2. I was in Scotland at the time, hitchhiking around Britain with friends. It was during Easter break, and the news came as a shock to us, since we hadn’t realized that Pompidou (who frankly never looked the picture of health) was even ill. I made my way back to Bordeaux, thumbing on my own back through London, Dover and Calais. I got a great lift from Calais to Paris with a handsome and charming young man in a red sports car, who told me how he had emigrated from his native Indonesia to the Netherlands and had subsequently cemented his rise in the world by becoming engaged to the daughter of “the second wealthiest family in Argentina.” As we drove through Paris, we saw the cortège of limousines of world leaders who had arrived for the state funeral.

The election of a new president gave us students an unexpected and instructive opportunity to observe the French electoral system first-hand. There were a dozen presidential candidates, but only three of them were considered to have any realistic shot at winning. I had the chance to see two of those three in the flesh. The Gaullist candidate was former Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas, who also happened to be the mayor of Bordeaux. Without realizing his significance or that he would so soon be a presidential candidate, I had attended a vin d’honneur, held for the foreign students attending the local university, at the city’s Hôtel de Ville. As a young idealistic student, my impression of him was that he was old and stuffy.

The other candidate I got a look at was the Socialist, François Mitterand. He held a rally in Bordeaux that seemed to be attended mainly by enthusiastic students. Indeed, his rally felt very much like one I had witnessed just a couple of years earlier in Santa Barbara for American presidential candidate George McGovern. The South Dakota senator would go on to lose to incumbent Richard Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. history. Mitterand, who struck me as quite similar to McGovern, on the other hand, would place first in the first round of voting with 43.25 percent of the votes in a 12-person field. His opponent in the second round was the centrist Independent Republican candidate, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. I only saw Giscard on television, but he came off as urbane, patrician and extremely intelligent. Though he won only 32.6 percent of the vote in the first round, he defeated Mitterand by a mere 1.6 percent in the runoff, the closest election in French history.

Two months after the election, I was back in the U.S., which was about to undergo its own unexpected change of government. In August Richard Nixon would resign as a result of the Watergate scandal, making the unelected Gerald Ford president. I would continue to observe Giscard’s presidency from afar, and it had its problems. He ran into trouble over his intervention in the Central African Republic and some diamonds he received as a gift from that country’s former leader, who had been given asylum in France. Also he had a damaging break with his prime minister, Jacques Chirac, who went on to found his own party. When Giscard ran for re-election in 1981, he lost to Mitterand, who went on to become France’s longest serving President. Current President Nicolas Sarkozy doesn’t look like he’ll come anywhere close to challenging Mitterand’s record for longevity.

Another significant change in a government that occurred during that year I spent in France happened in well beyond the Atlantic Ocean, in Chile. On September 11, 1973, President Salvador Allende was removed from office in a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and which resulted in Allende’s death by his own hand. Little did I suspect at the time that, in less than four years, I myself would be living in Chile. Or that I would be observing a vote in that country and, in fact, would be obliged to participate in it.

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