NEAL CONAN, HOST:
On the surface, the presidential election that's underway in France may not seem all that different from ours: An incumbent under fire on unemployment and economic policy who pretty well knows who he's likely to face from a field of challengers. But the similarities end there. Everything from campaign finance to media coverage to the types of presidential challengers looks completely different. NPR commentator Ted Koppel recently returned from France on assignment for "Rock Center" on NBC-TV. His piece airs there tomorrow night. And he joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome home, Ted.
TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: Well, hello, Neal. It's nice to be back. Six pounds heavier, I might add.
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CONAN: And well put too. French voters go to the polls Sunday to winnow down the field of candidates. The first round, though, is very unlike our system of primary elections.
KOPPEL: Well, you know, the actual first round, Neal, has something like 62 candidates. That begins on the first of January. And obviously one of the first big differences between their presidential campaign and ours is that theirs is over, start to finish, in four months. But for the first six weeks or so, or even longer than that, for the first two months, you've got essentially 60 candidates who are trying to get out there and get the signatures of 500 French elected officials. On the face of it, that doesn't sound too tough.
There are 40,000 of those mayors, city councilmen. And if you get those 500 signatures, you automatically get 800,000 euros - a little bit more than $1 million dollars - from the government to start your campaign. That, in fact, has now happened. Ten candidates actually got the 500 signatures. Ten candidates have the 800,000 euros. Ten candidates will be up for election this Sunday. Only two of them, the top two, will make it into the next round, and that, as you indicated at the - during the introduction, will almost certainly be Sarkozy and his socialist opponent Francois Hollande.
CONAN: Well, at this stage, are the airwaves in France choked with political advertisements as they would a few days ahead of an American election?
KOPPEL: They are not only not choked, there is no political advertising. I mean, that, in some respects, Neal, is the most amazing thing about the French election. No political advertising. It all happens - and indeed, I spoke to the news director of Radio Inter, which is sort of a French NPR, and he points out the great difficulty is that there is a rule, actually, a law that is enforced by a federal agency that each of the 10 candidates during these last two weeks of the campaign, before April 22, before Sunday, has to get not only equal time on the air, but equal placement on the air.
Now, you can imagine, if you have to put 10 candidates on and if you're doing a five-minute or a 10-minute interview with one, and that automatically commits you to the same time of day and the same length of time, ironically, the result of all of this is at the end of the day most of the radio and television stations in France just say forget it. You know, equal time is also putting nobody on the air, and that's what they do.
CONAN: Well, because they get these 800,000 euros, does that mean they don't have to ask donors for contributions?
KOPPEL: No, they do ask donors for contributions. And, you know, they do get contributions. But where the real money comes from is, if you are one of these 10 candidates, you can go to a bank, and you can say, look, here, I got the 500 signatures. I'm an official candidate. Make me a loan. If you get 5 percent of the vote or more, the government will reimburse you for half of what you spend, up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 22, 23 million dollars, so that if you get a loan for $22 million, you will get $11 million back from the government, but only if you get 5 percent of the vote. Now, obviously the danger is that you go take a major loan, you don't get 5 percent of the vote, and you're on the hook for it.
CONAN: And so if you're in the Conan party, you're going to be really worried you're not going to get that 5 percent of the vote.
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KOPPEL: I have no doubt that the Conan party would get at least 10 percent of the vote, but, you know, it's your gamble, Neal.
CONAN: But it's a risk. Well, if you can't buy political advertising, what do you spend the money on?
KOPPEL: Well, you spend the money, for example - and it's strange, because they call - his opponents call President Sarkozy l'Americain, the American. And they're not saying it with a smile on their lips. There's sort of a sneer on their lips. They're not any crazier about Americans than, for example, the Republican candidates in this country are about French socialists. But the irony is that it is the socialists.
And Hollande's campaign is ran by three absolutely charming young men who met at MIT and Harvard, three Frenchmen, in their late 20s, early 30s, and they are the ones running the campaign. And they have decided that they are going to replicate the Obama campaign of 2008 in France this year. And that's what they're doing. And they're going door to door. And they're using computerized systems. And they're using Internet radio. They're using all the same tactics that the Obama candidacy employed four years ago.
CONAN: In the meantime, there is still power of incumbency. A lot of people thought the terrible situation in the south of France...
KOPPEL: In Toulouse.
CONAN: In Toulouse, yes - that that would redound to the benefit of the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, who's certainly run on an anti-terrorism platform.
KOPPEL: Exactly. And indeed, what happened - and the cynics among us. I'm afraid I count myself as one of them. The cynics among us would look at the fact that all kinds of suspected terrorists were being rounded up in the weeks immediately after that. The cynic would say Sarkozy is using the power of the presidency as a means of showing how tough, how forceful he can be. And briefly, that did seem to help him somewhat in the polls. But at the moment, Hollande is still ahead in the expectation in the one-on-one race that will take place between this coming Sunday and the 6th of May. In other words, the final election between the top two candidates, expected to be Sarkozy and Hollande, will take place on the 6th of May. And at the moment, Hollande is still ahead, but it's within the margin of error.
CONAN: Well, the big question, I guess, in the first round, which is coming up Sunday, they're - at least the polls I saw showed them virtually neck and neck. The question then goes: What about the supporters of all those other eight candidates? Where did they go? And they include people all the way from the extreme right, the National Front, to the leftists.
KOPPEL: The extreme left, the communists.
KOPPEL: Yes, absolutely. And the - what's really, to me, one of the most interesting things about looking at the French campaign is that whereas here in this country, there isn't that huge a difference between Republicans and Democrats. Yes, I know they say nasty things about each other all the time. But in the final analysis, whether a Democrat is elected president or whether a Republican is elected president probably isn't going to make for huge changes. Yes, Supreme Court nominations, absolutely, but in terms of foreign policy, in terms of economic policy, not that huge a difference.
In France, as you point out, the spectrum from the extreme right, the National Front, which has a neo-fascist background and is viciously - although, they are putting on a kinder, gentler front these days with Marine Le Pen, who's a very attractive, middle-aged woman who is not visually as tough as her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who really was something of an extreme right-winger in the way that he spoke. She has a much softer line, but her policy, very, very tough indeed on the extreme right. And then Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is the communist, who runs the leftist front way on the fringes - huge rallies, Neal, with tens of thousands of French communists who are coming out there. So the range from left to right is far greater in France than it is here in the United States.
CONAN: Well, the question I guess is does all of this contribute to a less-polarized political culture when you get down to the final two candidates, the socialist, - a moderate leftists in the French political terminology - and the conservative, the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy?
KOPPEL: I think it does, although, you know, when you talk about French socialism, you really are talking about. And Hollande has made some people in the European community very nervous because he's talking about bringing the retirement age back down again. I think it's now at 62 in France, but it was down below that. It was at 60, and I think even younger at some point. And France simply cannot afford. As you know, some of these rating agencies have now taken away France's AAA financial rating, and they're now - whatever it is - AA-plus. And there is - I mean, it's gotten to the point that some of Sarkozy's conservative colleagues - the British prime minister, the German chancellor - have come to France and have said: You really need to vote for Sarkozy, because without him, Europe's economic policy is going to go right down the toilet.
CONAN: Back in the - so many years ago, when I put on six pounds covering the campaign of Francois Mitterrand, the first socialist-elected president of France...
KOPPEL: And that was when six pounds really meant something.
CONAN: It really - six pounds - a pound was a pound. In the meantime, that was a moment where there was a real political change. He was talking about nationalizing various parts of the economy. And a lot of people said this time around, whoever's elected, France is so broke, there's not going to be a whole lot of change.
KOPPEL: I think in the final analysis that's right. But you made a good point before, Neal, and that is it's a question of how much impact the far left is going to have on Hollande and the far right is going to have on Sarkozy. And we will see. I mean, the great advantage of the French election process and the French campaign is it's over before you know it. It's a two-week-long campaign when it finally gets down to the last two.
CONAN: We could expect those on the right to flock to Sarkozy's camp and those on the left to support the socialist Hollande, but there are people in between, moderates. Are those going to be the ones who decide this election?
KOPPEL: You know, honestly, I don't know. I mean, I must say I spent a delightful, long week - almost 10 days - in France learning more about the French campaign process than I've ever known before. But I cannot claim to be an expert in terms of what's going to happen with all these parties. I mean, when you point out that there are, after all, 10 parties running, when they range from, you know, the Green Party to - look, when the process began, you actually had a guy in a bumblebee suit who was running around France and a lady in a see-through blouse who professionally, I think, works as a stripper. She - they were all running for president.
As you probably know, to qualify to be a presidential candidate in France, apart from those pesky 500 signatures that you have to get, you only need to be 18 years old, a French citizen and not have a criminal record. That's pretty liberal.
CONAN: A few more weeks there, Ted, you would've qualified.
KOPPEL: Well, no, because I wasn't born in France.
CONAN: Oh, well.
KOPPEL: And actually, the interesting thing is I had a conversation with one of the spokespeople for the National Front, the right-wing party, and we were talking because they are very much opposed to the liberal immigration policies and the liberal social programs for the immigrants who come in. And the spokesman was saying, you know, that a lot of these of immigrants are born in France. And I said, well, then they're not immigrants. And he said, well, we're going to change that. So you get a sense of how tough they are.
CONAN: Fred, we look - Ted, we look forward to your piece tomorrow night on NBC's "Rock Center" with Brian Williams.
KOPPEL: I thank you. It's always a pleasure.
CONAN: Ted Koppel, NPR commentator, joined us from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.