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’…

L’embarras du choix

http://candidat-2017.fr/candidats.php

Is it so surprising that in the land of 400 cheeses there are almost as many candidates for Président de la République?

After 25 years in France, several of them with my voter’s card in my pocket and a certain fluency in its ways, only now am I beginning to understand (sort of) how this whole voting malarkey works.

It seems that anyone who is able to vote can also declare themselves a candidate in the 2017 French presidential election. And quite a few already have – upwards of 150 by my calculations.

Getting the requisite 500 signatures of elected representatives to make their candidacy official is much harder: so far only a handful have achieved this. And today, March 17th, is the final date – after which the list will be greatly reduced. St. Patrick may dance a little jig.

In the meantime, I have discovered that the list of candidates contains some real gems. There is Super Chataigne (eh oui, super chestnut), a masked contender whose platform is founded upon giving democracy back to the people. I think it is a parody but in France it is hard to be sure.

You have to wonder why they would bother. It’s fairly certain that the vote will come to down to one of a short list of Macron, Hamon, Fillon or Le Pen. But it seems to be dear to the French heart that the election keep its balance, ensuring that everyone, including the Trotskyists, has a voice in the debate. Peu importe – small matter – if they are eliminated before we get to the first round. At least a diversity of views will have been represented.

A degree of pluralité, or pluralism, will mean that the next month will be interesting, even entertaining. And I hope the result will be less catastrophic than other recent election results.

Stay tuned as the saga continues!

Penelope gate

penelope-gate

She is someone I can relate to. An English speaker, about my age, married to a Frenchman. Which makes the uproar currently sweeping our nation, the so-called ‘Penelope gate’, all the more disturbing.

I know almost nothing about Penelope Fillon, née Clarke, except that she is said to be from Wales and has been married to François Fillon, former Prime Minister (under Sarkozy) and the Republican candidate for the upcoming French presidential election in May.

When I learned that Fillon’s wife was Welsh, he immediately went up in my esteem. That she was shy and stayed out of the limelight made her seem rather sympathetic; her role as a stay-at-home mother of five perhaps less so. Often referred to by the media as Catholic and ‘deeply conservative’, Fillon has been accused of wanting to revoke abortion rights (something he has publicly refuted, stating that his personal convictions and the rights of women in this country are two separate matters).

It came to light last week that Penelope had received large sums of money as her husband’s ‘parliamentary assistant’ and later as a contributor to a political review. The left-leaning Canard Enchainé newspaper revealed the amounts, up to 900 K euros, over a 10-year period and suggested that it was in the guise of an ‘emploi fictif’, i.e. that she was paid to do nothing.

If there is one thing that French voters are sensitive to, it is the suggestion that someone has been paid for nothing. In an age of high unemployment, where so many people scrape to get by, the idea of our leaders taking advantage of the system to funnel money into their own households is unpalatable to say the least.

The unfortunate affair is now in the hands of the courts. In theory, there was nothing illegal in an elected official hiring members of his own family to do things like research his speeches, organize his schedule and do whatever else an assistant would do – giving birth to some interesting memes.

euro-fillon

It will be hard to prove that Penelope did not earn the salary she received, which was fully declared for tax purposes. But the mere suggestion of such corruption has tarnished Fillon’s image in the eyes of a good part of the voting public – perhaps irrevocably.

François Fillon has taken the moral high ground in his campaign, declaring that if he is under any kind of investigation, he will not run. He has also pointed the finger at his opponents on the left, accusing them of the worst sort of mud-slinging, even a ‘coup d’état’.

It’s a political scandal with a potentially disastrous fall-out. The conservative votes that would normally have gone to Fillon, should he not be a viable candidate, will now be split between the left and the extreme right.

Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party has been left in ruins. It began with the defection of Emmanuel Macron, his former economy minister, who is leading his own presidential run as a free ‘centrist’ candidate. The Socialists’ official candidate, Benoît Hamon, is a ‘frondeur’ – a rebel of sorts – seen by some as a utopian. On the far right, rubbing her hands together like Wile E. Coyote, is Marine Le Pen.

While Fillon waits for the courts to decide whether or not to open an inquiry, the pack of hyenas who call themselves journalists in this country have already torn him apart and declared him an unfit candidate. ‘Presumed innocent’ hangs vaguely in the air while they speculate over campaign tactics and a potential plan B for the right.

In the meantime, I feel for Penelope. It can’t be easy to be a shy person who is suddenly cast into the worst kind of public scrutiny. I’ve never heard her speak on camera, so I don’t know how she handles herself in French. The suspense won’t last long – the investigative news magazine Envoyé Spécial is said to have an ‘incriminating’ interview with her which will air tonight.

Penelope gate, as the French have dubbed the affair, continues. Stay tuned.

Moi, président de la République

closer

France was all aflutter this week, and it was not with snow. Word came down the wire that President Hollande would address the nation on Thursday evening at 8:00 pm. An unscheduled presidential address? This was breaking news!

Given our president’s historically unparalleled unpopularity, and the fact that the centre-right has now chosen François Fillon as its candidate for next spring’s presidential election, we did have a wee hint that it might have something to do with politics. That we might finally get an answer to the question: Would he or wouldn’t he?

Hollande hemmed and he hawed and took several long minutes to reflect upon the many successes of his administration, from same-sex marriage to lower unemployment, as viewers across the nation cried: “Accouche!” Quite literally to give birth, in this context it means – spit it out!

Then he finally uttered the words we had all been waiting for: “J’ai décidé de ne pas être candidat à l’élection présidentielle.” He would not stand for re-election.

Enfin! We all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

FlanbyFlanby, as the Guignols de l’info fondly baptized Hollande years ago, has lived up to his name. The popular brand of crème caramel always seemed to fit the man: wet, wobbly, bland. If only his politics had not lived up so well to his image. If only during his campaign in 2012 he had not uttered those famous first words:

“Moi, président de la République…”

He would be the people’s president, he promised, and his behaviour would be exemplary at all times. This just months before his not-so-secret dalliance with actress Julie Gayet was revealed on the cover of Closer, followed by a painfully public breakup with journalist Valérie Trierveiler, for whom he had previously left his long-time companion and the mother of his four children, fellow politician Ségolène Royal. Et oui, French politics are not for the faint of heart.

By choosing not to run, Hollande has demonstrated the dignity to acknowledge his failures and, in doing so, possibly save his party from total ruin. Will a worthy candidate emerge from the rubble? I doubt it. Prime Minister Manuel Valls is looking like the most likely contender, and if ever there was an unlikeable politician, it is he. The last thing we need is another petit nerveux, his deep-voice and close-set eyes sternly reminding us of how wrongly we have all behaved.

It’s easy to criticize, I hear you say. What would you do if you were president?

Moi, présidente…

I would get rid of party politics. Emmanuel Macron, who resigned from his position as an economy minister in Hollande’s government in August to run as an independent candidate in the presidential election, has taken a step in this direction. While I don’t think he is quite ready for the presidency, at the tender age of thirty-six years or practically in his infancy in French politics, I do think he has the right idea.

I would advocate for a 6th Republic. While I’m not for the Marxist revolution sought by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and those on the far left, there are just too many institutions to change in France without starting afresh. We need to rewrite the constitution to redistribute power in a more democratic way.

Last but surely not least, I would conduct my own personal French revolution by making public toilets clean, free and readily available on every corner.

What would you do if you were president?