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?

En suspens

Larousse defines ‘en suspens’ as a state of momentary interruption. To me it feels like time is standing still. This state of being suspended, in limbo, while we wait and see what the future holds.

I am not normally given to pre-election anxiety. But in light of the surprising results the world has seen this past year whenever voters went to the polls, it is natural to feel anxious. Everywhere you turn in France there is talk of what may be the fall-out after Sunday’s first round of the presidential election.

Sure, there will be a second round two weeks later, on May 7. But by then the choices will be narrowed down to two from the current 11. And if we believe the polls, which I am not particularly inclined to do but at the same time cannot reasonably ignore, we could conceivably find ourselves stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: Mélenchon on the left, and Le Pen on the right.

That particular scenario is responsible for my sense of creeping discomfort. If it came down to it, I am fairly confident that France would go left. But at what price? The end of Europe as we know it, of free trade and the free movement of its citizens. What would it be like to live in ‘La France Insoumise’ (Undefeated, rebellious France)? There are things I could get excited about: a new constitution (6ème République) that would allow this country to make the kinds of sweeping changes that are needed; a real commitment to investing in renewable energy. But how exactly would we distribute the so-called wealth of our country to better serve its citizens?

What concerns me is that there are so many cynical, deluded and misguided citizens who either will not vote at all, will vote ‘blanc’ as a protest, or will vote for an extreme faction which, however endearing, has no chance making more than a ripple at the polls. Which leaves the window wide open – grande ouverte – for our worst nightmare.

Until next week, then, when we will have a better idea of ‘à quelle sauce on sera mangé’…

Bon ménage

The cleaning lady quit. Again.

(For anyone groaning, “You have a cleaning lady?” you may as well stop reading here.)

I am rarely without a cleaning lady. I use this outmoded term intentionally for two reasons: 1) The commonly used French term is ‘femme de ménage’, even though a former colleague used to proudly refer to her ‘homme de ménage’; I suppose it is technically possible to find a man willing and able to do the job, although I personally doubt the existence of such beings. 2) 99% of cleaners are women, so who are we kidding?

First, let’s get our terms straight. ‘Ménage’ is housework, ‘faire bon ménage’ means to get along well with somebody, and ‘ménage à trois’ you’ve probably already heard of in a slightly different context – this being the main thing on search engines’ minds when I googled ‘ménage’ in search of photos.

The official French term for the profession of cleaner is ‘technicien de surface’, a job which is filled by both sexes in supermarkets, hospitals and office buildings. But when it comes to households and their cleaning or ‘ménage’ (the same word refers to both), women dominate the field.

A series of cleaning ladies has swept through our lives in recent years. I am daily reminded of Patricia, a pixie-like woman with a cloud of red hair who arrived at our door looking like the French rock star Mylène Farmer. It was she who coerced me into adding Léo, one of my current cat bosses, to our ménagerie. Her particular obsession was dust in unreachable corners of the ceiling, and I would often see her perched precariously high while swiping at dust motes. As she was one of those whom we hired ‘au noir’, that is to say under the table, I often feared an accident for which we would be held responsible.

Another called Carole spent hours taking apart and cleaning the Dyson. She also snooped through our papers and regaled me with dirt about other clients, and the number of thongs she found under the bed. She was the only cleaner I have ever let go.

We tried several agencies so as to do things in the above-board way and, as an added incentive, get a tax break. I invariably found these individuals to be less gung ho than their cash-only counterparts. One rather heavyset young woman demanded that I supply her with enough wet wipes to clean the entire house. Another insisted on ironing (against my religion) but refused to take out the garbage. How can you clean a house without emptying the bin? Another scowled the whole time she cleaned, making me sure she hated us, our house and the pets. Later I learned that she had eye trouble, explaining both the frown and her selective vision of dirt.

When we are between cleaners, as we are now, I put on the red hat I reserve for emergency operations like moving house. I clear the area of pets and clutter, rally the troops (currently diminished to one half-hearted husband), let go a battle cry (“Time to clean!”) and wield my vacuum cleaner with gusto. A couple of hours later, our house is more or less clean. Unfortunately this state is all too transient and, in the hours and days that follow, I am transformed into a clean freak, a kitchen counter kamikaze, toilet seat totalitarian.

When we find another cleaner, I will be able to quit this thankless task and our household will return to its normal state of bon ménage.

How do you approach house cleaning? Or not?

Tant de chemin parcouru

I like to look back. Whenever I take a train or a boat I sit backwards, facing the departing view rather than what is rushing towards us.

It occurs to me that at this time 25 years ago we were getting ready to cross the pond. The contents of our lives were on a container ship, our two Frenchies were checked in with our luggage, and we were squeezed into two economy class seats on an Air France flight to Paris with a squirming two-and-half-year-old. I think it was the last time we got away without paying for an extra seat for our son, who is now 27. Our daughter, who turns 24 this year, was in the active planning phase. Enough said.

 

So much water under the bridge, tant de chemin parcouru as we say in French. We moved from my in-laws’ house in Paris to Lyon in the summer of 1992 and never looked back.

Actually, that is untrue. We look back a lot, or at least I do. The years have this way of flying by, and it’s only by looking back and seeing where you’ve been that you get a sense of how far you’ve come.

Where were you 25 years ago?

Pompe à fric

If there is one thing that is uniformly reviled by the French, it is a radar trap. They call such revenue-generating devices ‘des pompes à fric’ – ‘fric’ being slang for cash, bread, dough or moolah.

“But what’s wrong with radars if they force people to slow down?” I asked many years ago, all innocence, when friends were ranting about how ‘vicieux’ were such machines. Surely you couldn’t have a cop on every corner, I continued, and speed limits are set for a reason – to save lives.

The conversation ground to a halt. I felt all eyes upon me. Was she kidding? A pause. Then, one of our friends very nicely explained that such devices were not intended to get people to slow down. In fact, they were strategically positioned just where they knew you would drive above the limit. On purpose. To earn money.

“Ce sont des pompes à fric!”

“C’est scandaleux!”

You cannot argue with the French when they are convinced they are right. Which is to say 99% of the time.

I am no speed demon. Husband likes to joke that I get traffic tickets for driving too slowly. This is categorically untrue – I don’t even think there is a minimum speed limit. But it is true that I hate driving on the motorway and avoid it like the plague. Too many cars, not to mention trucks, driving too fast and too close. So I take the scenic route, often shorter in klicks but far, far longer in time.

The odd thing is that on city roads I am impatient and always in a hurry. Which leads me to get a certain number of speeding tickets, usually for going just a kilometer or two above the limit. Fortunately, most of these occur on the Swiss side of the border, where the law is more forgiving. First of all, they give you a margin of 5 km/hour. Also, they don’t deduct points for minor infractions (at least that I’m aware of) as they do in France. The tickets take a while to reach us, but they do get here eventually.

The proliferation of photo radar machines and traffic enforcement cameras on all major routes (click on the map to get an idea) means that you must constantly be on the lookout – or, alternatively, drive the speed limit. Stop when the light turns red.

Try that in France, however, and you may just get rear-ended. At the very least honked at, insulted and made to feel like an outsider.

Which is pretty well par for the course.

When was the last time you got a speeding ticket?