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?