Almost three-quarters of French voters approved a referendum Sunday to cut the presidential term from seven years to five. Despite predictions of a low turnout, most papers seemed stunned by the extent of the French electorate’s apathy. Only 30.5 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, breaking the record for indifference previously held by a 1988 referendum on the future of faraway New Caledonia. Britain’s Daily Telegraph declared, “Abstention on such a scale bodes ill for any democracy.” The International Herald Tribune speculated that “voters seemed irritated at being asked to vote on a technical issue amid more pressing national problems.” Le Monde reported that several municipalities ignored the official referendum question and chose instead to vote on different matters; the alternative proposals included a condemnation of the price of gasoline, a protest against the lack of weekend surgery at a local hospital, or a call for the reopening of a local pharmacy.
The importance of the issue is debatable—the imperial seven-year presidency is the centerpiece of the Fifth Republic established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. Referendum supporters sought to synchronize the terms of members of parliament, the prime minister, and the president in hopes that it would lead to a clear mandate rather than the often fractious divided government such as the one that currently rules France.
Neither Prime Minister Lionel Jospin nor President Jacques Chirac have endeared themselves to the electorate of late. Jospin’s popularity has plunged in the last month because of his failure to take a strong stand on fuel protests and taxes, and his wavering on France’s constitutional relationship with Corsica, which has recently been offered limited self-rule. Chirac was also tainted this week when a videotape was released showing a former aide, now deceased, accusing him of taking bribes when he was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995.
A post-mortem by Eric Dupin in the left-leaning daily Libération suggested that the voters’ apathy indicated the end of “big table politics,” the disreputable state of politics and politicians, and the devaluation of the presidency. Dupin declared:
Voters take part in the electoral process because they want to affirm their membership in a political community. The weakening of this feeling leads to the collapse of democracy. A sort of civic consumerism develops where voting becomes discretionary rather than a matter of duty. … Election Sundays have moved from the era of religious devotion to that of the shopping trip.
In another European referendum, Swiss voters “decisively rejected”—by 63 percent to 37 percent in early returns—a plan to limit the number of foreign residents to 18 percent of the population. Foreigners currently make up 19.3 percent of the population of Switzerland; according to the Financial Times this is “more than twice the level in Germany and Austria and three times the level in France.”
Mbeki’s “intellectual superiority complex”: South African President Thabo Mbeki’s “credibility has been severely damaged by his mishandling of the HIV and Aids crisis,” according to the Mail & Guardian of Johannesburg. Mbeki has often stated that HIV does not cause AIDS, though he recently confirmed that his government’s programs are based on a causal link between HIV and AIDS. The paper said that health workers in rural areas have accused Mbeki of “subverting the anti-Aids message, with grave consequences for those affected and their families.” It also suggested that his attitude had embarrassed his Cabinet:
Most ducked, dived and avoided giving direct answers on whether or not they thought HIV caused Aids rather than risk crossing the president on the issue. In the process, Mbeki seemed to have drawn South African political culture across a threshold more readily associated with dictatorships than with democracies.
The Sunday Tribune likened the Cabinet’s unwillingness to contradict Mbeki to the court in Hans Christian Andersen’s story that would not admit the emperor had no clothes. It also reported: “In parliament this week he was pressed to inject himself with a cc of [HIV]-infected blood to prove his scepticism about the link between HIV and Aids. He declined.” South Africa’s Sunday Times declared, “Mbeki has become his own worst enemy. A hallmark of the Mbeki presidency has been what can only be described as an intellectual superiority complex.” It continued:
The row over … HIV and AIDS is not a matter of semantics, as the President’s spin doctors have tried to tell the nation. It is about whether the President is willing to humble himself a little and deliver a clear message to his country about the biggest crisis to hit it in 100 years. The ANC’s willingness, or its lack thereof, to break ranks with Mbeki on this question will determine just how serious it is about accountability.
International medical transfusions: Canada’s National Post described South Africa’s frustration with wealthy countries such as Canada poaching its doctors. The South African health minister recently declared that 170 medical professionals have left the country in the last two years, after the state paid $11,500,000 for their education and training. Forty-five percent of doctors who graduated from Witwatersrand medical school between 1960 and 1994 have since left the country. (It would be useful to know what percentage of all Witwatersrand grads from that period are still in South Africa.) However, Canada, which has the worst doctor-patient ratio in the industrialized world, claims that small towns’ need for physicians is so great they have no other choice than “to lure candidates from less fortunate countries around the world.” South Africa is recruiting doctors from Cuba to replace homegrown medics.