Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Parisienne Mais Presque a voté

This weekend was my first opportunity to vote in a French presidential election, and I took to the polls thrilled to do my duty as an adoptive French citizen.

I felt like I was actually participating in the political process far more than I have in years. In the US, I've been a Democrat by default since elementary school. I remember proudly voting for Mondale in the third-grade mock elections when all my classmates voted for Reagan, not an easy stance to take in suburban Washington State. (Okay, so we followed our parents advice; there's a reason eight-year-olds aren't eligible to vote.) I've never really questioned my politics, always finding my point of view relatively easily among American liberals, and never really seriously considering any Republican candidate. Despite one protest vote for the Green party when I was in college, I think I've always voted Democrat for just about everything without feeling particularly strongly about it. It just seemed, and still seems, the obvious choice.

When I moved to France, I suddenly had no personal political tradition to fall back on and had to seriously reflect on my choices. What's more, in France there are far more choices than in the US, and the political continuum both stretches wider and is more fluid than what I'm used to. In addition to the mainstream parties, there are a multitude of fringe groups which taken together seriously affect the outcome of most elections. There's a Communist party and there are Trotskyist parties that are actually to the left of the Communist party; there's a Green party; there's a "rural values" party that defends hunting, fishing and "tradition;" and there are a host of other parties that are more cult of personality than well-defined ideology. Alas, there is also an extreme-right fascist party that famously came in second in the 2002 presidential election, thus advancing to the second round. All this makes for a political picture that resembles not at all the two-party, big money scene I'm familiar with in America.

It all seems rather... well, amateurish to me, somehow. There are no televised political ads, banned as they thankfully are from French television. Instead, the candidates jump from issue to issue to snag air time, one week concentrating on homelessness, the next on job delocalization or insecurity in the troubled suburbs. Some event will show up in the news, like the squatters camped out in tents along Paris' Canal Saint Martin last fall, and the candidates will wage a battle of sound bites for a few days before abandoning the subject as if by common agreement.

In the first round, there are simply too many candidates for anyone to agree to a full debate, so dialog is pretty much confined to informal talk shows and news interviews during which the candidates come across as less polished, perhaps more true to life, but certainly less "packaged" than their American counterparts. It's no easier for me to find out what they stand for or what they might actually do in office, however. And I admit that I haven't been paying nearly enough attention.

Along with a third of the French electorate, I didn't make up my mind until a few weeks before the election. As friends of mine of all political persuasions are reading this, I won't disclose my vote. Readers of my blog are too few and therefore too precious for me to lose them over politics...

So imagine me instead, my French passport and electoral card in hand, heading to the polls last Sunday. I find the whole process quaint and old-fashioned, and can almost imagine French revolutionaries staging it for the first time in powdered wigs. I arrive, show my papers to a volunteer seated a table, and he checks my name off a list and hands me an envelope. The table is spread with twelve piles of squares of paper, each with the name of a candidate. Tradition and good citizenship dictate that you take several different names regardless of who you plan to vote for. I took Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, François Bayrou, the centrist candidate, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the Gaullist candidate on the right, the three mainstream choices. No Green party or Trotskyists for me; mine will be a useful vote, the vote utile.

I go to the voting booth, select a name, double-check that I've correctly put just one in the envelope, and throw the two others in the curiously empty wastebasket. I wonder, am I the only good citizen that afternoon?

Now things get tricky and I'm nervous, because the only other time I voted I messed up the next part of the script. Three more people are seated at another table, and I give my passport and electoral card to the first. She looks me up on a list and recites a number. The second person looks up that number and calls out: "[Your faithful correspondent's mispronounced full maiden name] peut voter!" It's official, I have the right to vote! By now, having rushed my cue, I've already placed my envelope in the closed slot on top of the plexiglass ballot box. The third person whose job it is to pull the lever on the ballot box does so, and my envelope falls to join a pile of other identical blue envelopes in the bottom. "[Your faithful correspondent's mispronounced full maiden name] a voté!" is called out. I've done it! I'm almost giddy. I start to walk out when I'm called back to the table with "Madame! Vos papiers!" and I realize I've forgotten my passport.

I'll get another chance to do it all again in two weeks when I'll vote in the second round: Ségolène versus Sarkozy, a classic right-wing/left-wing contest. Should be fun to watch... and this time, maybe I'll get the hang of the ballot box.

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