Le suffrage

La suffrage

I voted in the first round of the French presidential elections last Sunday. It occurred to me that the experience of voting in France is quite uniquely French. There is a strong sense of tradition, a lot of rules, and a bit of what the French call ‘folklorique’ at the polling station. Outlandish, bizarre…all very typical of what you find in a country village.

It begins months ahead of the election, when you get your voter’s card. To do this, you have to make sure you’re registered at city hall, which involves going over to your Mairie with the usual paper proofs – justificatif de domicile in the form of a utility or tax bill, official identity card or passport.

When election day rolls around, you must show up at the local polling station, voter’s card in hand, along with an official form of ID. Elections are always held on a Sunday in France, not for any religious reason but because it’s a day when (almost) no one has to work, giving everyone an equal chance to vote.

As you enter the correct polling office, you first go to the person who has the list, make sure you are on it, and prove who you are by showing your ID. Then comes the fun part.

Laid along a table are various piles of ballots. In Sunday’s vote, there were 11 candidates to choose from. You are not supposed to let anyone know who you are voting for, so you must make a show of taking a selection of ballots. I pretended to hesitate, then selected some of the more far-fetched ones – the anti-capitalist Philippe Poutou, and the candidate from deepest rural France, Jean Lasalle – along with that of my preferred candidate.

Then you enter the ‘isoloir’, a curtained off area where you go to presumably ponder your choice before slipping the ballot of your preferred candidate into the envelope. It is a bit of a farce – why must it be so secretive? Surely they can see which ballots are left behind and roughly calculate who is winning? To be sure that I respected the procedure, I stuffed the extra ballots in my pocket.

You exit the curtained booth and cross over to the person who is the guardian of the ‘urne’, in this case not a container for funerary ashes (although it is the same word) but the official plexiglass ballot box in which the votes are captured. There is a little slot on top of the box which the person in charge opens as you slip your envelope in. He then cries out ‘A voté!’ for all to hear and witness that you have performed your civic duty.

Bristling with pride, I head for the door.

“Madame!” comes an urgent cry.

Oops — almost forgot. Now you must see a different person with a different list and sign by your name (which they call ‘émarger’) to prove that you have voted.

The best part about voting is watching the other voters come and go. An elderly couple formally attired in their Sunday best. A red-faced paysan, who may have come straight from milking the cows. Vaguely recognizable village notables, who stand around looking important. Harried-looking parents, who rush in and tell their children to wait quietly by the door.

I was surprised to learn that women only got the right to vote in France in 1944. That’s way after their British and Canadian counterparts in 1918 and the American suffragettes in 1920.

The word ‘suffrage’ comes from Latin and is also used in English, although we tend to associate it with the historical aspect of women’s suffrage. I know nothing of etymology but don’t you find it odd that suffering and voting should have the same root?

If the extreme right Front National should somehow manage to win the second round of the presidential election on May 7th, the words will be forever linked, at least in my mind. Fortunately, that is highly unlikely. But then again, who would have though that British people would vote for Brexit? Or Americans for Trump?

This is my third time voting for president in France, which means I’ve had my voter’s card for over ten years. The first time was in 2007, when I voted for Sarkozy. Yep. Back then he was an upstart who appealed to my desire to shake things up a little. Unfortunately he quickly lost popularity after marrying Carla Bruni and becoming known as the president of bling-bling.

This time my vote is for fresh ideas, for Europe, and the future. And, obviously, against the extreme right.

And, by the way, for the candidate who speaks the best English.

Do you make a point of voting? What’s the experience like for you?


  1. francetaste · April 27, 2017

    Le Pen could win if a lot of people vote blanc. Her base isn’t big but it’s rabid.
    Here is the etymology of suffrage (no link to suffering):
    late 14c., “intercessory prayers or pleas on behalf of another,” from Old French sofrage “plea, intercession” (13c.) and directly from Medieval Latin suffragium, from Latin suffragium “support, ballot, vote; right of voting; a voting tablet,” from suffragari “lend support, vote for someone,” conjectured to be a compound of sub “under” (see sub-) + fragor “crash, din, shouts (as of approval),” related to frangere “to break” (see fraction). On another theory (Watkins, etc.) the second element is frangere itself and the notion is “use a broken piece of tile as a ballot” (compare ostracism). Meaning “a vote for or against anything” is from 1530s. The meaning “political right to vote” in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787.

    • MELewis · April 27, 2017

      Interesting stuff. I’m not a churchgoer, but if it helps fight off ‘la rage’ I will plea, bargain, pray and even throw broken tiles at Ms. Le Pen. What is particularly scary is how she is distancing herself from the FN at the moment to try and make her candidacy more palatable to conservative and extreme left voters. You’re right – the ‘blanc’ votes represent a real danger.

      • Mél@nie · April 28, 2017

        @”even throw broken tiles at Ms. Le Pen…” – me, too, également… as I’m “naturalisée française”, like you, I presume… 🙂

      • MELewis · April 28, 2017

        Eh oui!

  2. Osyth · April 27, 2017

    Voting is a right that should be taken so seriously. When the stakes are as high as they are here this time (and will be in Britain a month later and were in the US last year not to mention Brexit … take a breath Osyth, you are turning an odd colour as you rev up to rant) it is absolutely essential to press the point home that by not voting you risk precisely the worst outcome. Brexit was a clear example of this. The young mostly wanted to stay in Europe but were mediocre in turning out and now have a nightmare to contend with. The same will happen here if people vote blanc. I can only hope that the French fully comprehend the danger. And I will certainly throw broken tiles at that odious wench if it comes to it.

    • MELewis · April 27, 2017

      How I love fellow ranters! Perhaps we need to see our voter’s cards as a license to vote, with the accompanying obligation to use that right wisely and responsibility in case of fall out. Sadly, I fear that a lot of French voters are either too disillusioned or apathetic to vote. Fellow tile throwers unite!

      • Osyth · May 1, 2017

        I spend yesterday with two extremely depressed French voters and left their house secure in the knowledge that my impassioned ranting in cow French had convinced them that they must vote. Voting cards are exactly that and must be used wisely and with great thought. Thank all that is good that I can count on you!

  3. Emily Commander · April 27, 2017

    This is really interesting. Why has it not occurred to anybody that it would be far simpler to have a single ballot paper, on which voters tick their preferred candidate? Mind you, such an approach would probably save far too many trees and run entirely counter to the national love of bits of paper to have even the slightest chance of working.

    • MELewis · April 28, 2017

      The only possible explanation I can think of is that it would be harder to sort through and count the ballots. But while we’re on the subject, why not computer terminals or ipads that you touch vote on? Or better yet, online voting for those who prefer with some sort of super-secure code? (I can already hear the engineers explaining the risks of techno-terrorists)…also, you need to have at least 5 people involved in the process at the polling station, otherwise it would not be France!

  4. M. L. Kappa · April 27, 2017

    In Greece procedures are exactly the same, except that you are handed a sheaf with all the different ballots, of which are around 45. Perhaps I exaggerate, but you know what they say – Put two Greeks together and you get three political parties. Every time I’m amazed by new parties I’ve never heard of before, some of whom comprise around three people! Then when you’re behind the curtain you have a black bin bag, where you can ditch all the ballots you’re not using. A total waste of paper, in my humble opinion. Anyway, Best of luck in round two!

    • MELewis · April 28, 2017

      Lol. Had no idea the Greeks loved their political parties even more than the French! That must make for a lot of confusion at the polling stations. Thanks for your wishes in round two – we need all the good vibes we can get!

  5. George Lewis · April 27, 2017

    Fascinating, old fashioned ritual and interesting that they have not modernized the voting process although Canada with our cardboard voting boxes and privacy screens is not much better.

    • MELewis · April 28, 2017

      Surprising that Canada hasn’t gone to some sort of computerized system, although I suppose it would be risky – hard to wrong with counting paper, if labour-intensive. Didn’t Mom used to do some volunteer work at the polling station?

  6. awtytravels · April 27, 2017

    Bonne chance, France. If only they didn’t ostracise their own citizens in banlieues and so on and so forth, Le Pen and her ghastly father would’ve got 0.0% of votes. Here’s to hoping for Monsieur Macron and Herr Schulz in Germany, we could do with another moment like Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand holding hands at Verdun… Ah, one can dream.

    • MELewis · April 28, 2017

      You are right, those suburban ghettos (while not intended to segregate but effectively doing so) are one of the reasons that the FN has gained ground. Oddly though, Le Pen’s popularity is almost entirely outside the main urban areas. In fact, if you were to calculate the vote based on geography, she would have won in the first round. Frightening indeed. As for dreams, we need more of them.

  7. I seriously considered voting; But it was cold and windy 😛 So instead I attempt to make people consider things from different angles.

    • MELewis · April 28, 2017

      Your comment is the most contrasted degree of cynicism and optimism in two lines. Je suis sans mots!

      • Mél@nie · April 28, 2017

        same here, Mel dear… as so many people all over the world have NO right to vote… 😦
        * * *
        N.B. “Le patriotisme, c’est aimer son pays. Le nationalisme, c’est détester celui des autres.”(Charles de Gaulle)

  8. Suzanne et Pierre · April 28, 2017

    I only learned of the way the French voted while following the votes in Montreal. I thought it was a bit weird to have all of these piles of small pieces of paper with only onr name on it and I read that the people watching over the election have to ensure the piles are always the same height as not to influence other voters who might see one pile going down faster and decide to vote for the favourite…

    As for right of vote, the Quebec women didn’t precede the French women by much only getting it in 1940 (to vote at the provincial level) way after having the right to vote in the Federal election. It must have been awkward to have the right to vote at the federal level but not at the provincial one…

    I certainly hope that people will go vote and not vote blank but at the same time I think the Front National is gaining ground and could win either this year or in the next election. They are no longer marginalized…(Suzanne)

    • MELewis · April 28, 2017

      The voting procedure is indeed surprising, but reading Phil’s explanation below, I suppose it makes sense. I just hope that French voters will be smart enough to see the real risk of MLP getting through, and make sure their vote counts. At the same time, I think it is time for the FN to be treated like any party and not be demonized, which to me only increases the appeal to certain voters. Hopefully it will go the way of the Socialist Party and Les Républicains…both of which seem to be falling apart.

      • Suzanne et Pierre · April 28, 2017

        I tend to agree with Phil about electronic voting. It seems that today they are too easy to hack by people who don’t like democratic processes. I am not against technology but I think there are times where it is becoming too invasive and too prone to hacking. As for the FN, well it will be the decision of the voters and it will be the results of the democratic process so even if we don’t like it I guess we will have to accept it…

      • phildange · April 28, 2017

        Democratic process, not that much . The woman Le Pen got 21% of 75% of registered electors (77% voters including 3% white and null ballots) . That leaves 15¨% of the registered people who voted for her . And only registered, mind you . Nowadays a lot of people don’t even have a home . Maybe she got 11 or 12 % of all adults . To be elected now she would need more than 50% abstentions . I’m not sure we can call the result of such elections democratic, in the sense of what the majority prefers . But that’s not a recent problem, when people only have the choice between different breeds of plague there is a problem in Politics, in the structures of the Polis .

  9. phildange · April 28, 2017

    The process of voting in France emerged from two centuries of various forms of pression . These memories, as well as what is occurring in many countries of now, led to the idea of a total anonimity of each vote, preventing any threat or revenge, before and after, from a neighbour or a totalitarian police . You cannot add anything that could be personal to your ballot . You have to use it as it is, any modification makes it null . I think that’s the reason why ticking your favourite on a list has not been implemented (and maybe the will of preventing any possible mistake or confusion for old folks or simple-minded) . Everybody must have the same chances to express one’s choice . And all the steps of the operation, proving who you are with your ID, signing after on the electoral list so you or nobody can pretend anything afterwards, even the loud “A voté!” for any official and citizen to testify, all this comes back from tumultuous times and has been carefully thought to prevent any manipulation or contestation . Yes it is not very necessary nowadays to take all these precautions but hazardous periods are not so long ago in the past and – Hem – maybe not so long in the future, we are not protected by Jehovah or Zeus .

    I am fiercely opposed to any electronic way of voting . You make fun of the … what ? light stupidity or unefficiency of the French who commit 5 persons where the pragmatic Anglo-Saxons or Germans would probably just need 1, but as any hacking master, secret service, politic police, huge corporate, etc… has the means to cheat in any electronic system we cannot trust anymore what comes out an electronic voting process . I find terrible that the USA vote like this and for sure a future totalitarian regime would adore this way of voting, it would preserve a democratic facade without risks .

    Sometimes I wonder about your deep attitude towards the French . You use the word “farce” about the different polls people take into the isoloir, saying it’s easy to see later which ballots are left, so that shows this French decorum is a farce . But Mel, it always has been obvious for everyone that you stuff the extra ballots in your pocket, as you did . This “farce” idea comes to the fact that you thought that most people are not able to think and do the same . Actually we don’t even need to play this comedy . We all received at home propaganda brochures from the candidates, together with a ballot . These ballots are the official ones, in the same format as in the voting room . I went to the town hall with my ballot in my pocket and I just had to take the envelope on the table .

    On a smiling note, I’m not surprised things are the same in Greece . For many reasons that would need a monograph to develop, for 30 years I have thought that in modern Europe (I mean in the last 15 centuries) the two lighthouses of ancient Europe were replaced with some variations . The French succeeded the Greeks and the English succeeded the Romans .

    • MELewis · April 28, 2017

      My deep attitude towards the French, as you put it Phil, is deeply conflicted.;-) Part of me understands and even appreciates the history and thought that is behind these traditions; another part still finds it strange and incomprehensible. I think it is an inevitable part of being a transplant, and the essential cultural difference between English and French of direct vs. indirect ways of saying and doing things. But you should never confuse my humour with mockery! Next time I will remember to take my ballots in secret from home — you see I never really understood why we received them before, and was afraid they would somehow be different and get disqualified. So thanks for enlightening me, as ever…

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