The British media are predictably mesmerised by the US Republican primary campaign and with good reason. It is a fiercely competitive race between colourful candidates. Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina puts pressure on Mitt Romney, the front-runner, to deliver a “knockout punch” in Florida.
As political spectator sport goes, this is end-to-end stuff. And, of course, it matters. The winning candidate will run against Barack Obama and so potentially emerge as President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of what remains – until China catches up some time in the next decade or three – the most formidable power in the world. It is worth keeping an eye on who is in the frame for that job.
Still, the US vote that really counts isn’t until November. Meanwhile, in our political backyard, campaigning is under way in another presidential poll – in France. The first round of voting is on 22 April. Francois Hollande wants to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy and take back the presidency for the Socialist party first time since 1996. On the fringe, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front, is hoping to repeat the success of her father, Jean-Marie, who stunned the European political establishment by elbowing his way into the second round presidential run-off against Sarkozy in 2002.
France’s constitution gives the president extraordinary powers – far more than are wielded by the US head of state, whose hands are often tied by Congress. The country is absolutely central to the diplomacy that is currently going on around attempts to resolve the European single currency debt crisis and the negotiations over wider reforms to the European Union. It shouldn’t have to be said that the outcome of a presidential election across the channel matters every bit as much to Britain – and arguably much more – than the outcome of a contest over the Atlantic.
You wouldn’t have guessed it from the proportion of attention paid by our media. It is, of course, easier to follow US politics – the Americans conveniently do battle in our native language. But that point of access creates a false sense of cultural and political proximity. Britain’s strategic alliance with Washington stays remarkably stable regardless of who is in the White House. It is a partnership built on defence and security collaboration.
By contrast, our economic fortunes could be quite substantially affected by the outcome of European negotiations, which, in turn, are substantially affected by diplomatic relations with the French head of state. The prospect of that job going to the Socialist candidate for the first time in 16 years (who, by the way, is campaigning on a populist anti-Big Finance ticket) merits perhaps more attention than it has thus far earned.