French Democracy Doorstopped

French Democracy Doorstopped

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How would you like to get an easy, on the spot look at French democracy in action?

You won’t have another chance for the next five years. With luck, particularly if you are in or near a  small French town or village, it only would take you about an hour or so and it would be an experience you’ll almost certainly remember for a long time.

All you have to do is go on Sunday May 6, French Presidential Election day, to any one of the  country’s tens of thousands voting sites just before poll-closing time and see how the system works.

In larger cities those sites will be numerous and scattered around to ease access for the greatest  number of potential voters. In smaller villages and communities, they’re usually set up in the local mayor’s office.

But you don’t have to be French or resident in France or even understand French to go and watch the proceedings and enjoy the ambiance. Electronic voting exists in some polling places but is not yet a widespread thing in France where vote counting is still a very hands-on affair with a lot of local volunteers helping out.

Essentially, French presidential elections are a two-stage affair. There was a first round of national voting April 22 that cut the initial list of 10 official candidates down to two.

May 6 now will be the runoff vote between moderately left-of-center challenger Francois Holland, a long-time head of France’s Socialist party, and incumbent right-of-center President Nicolas Sarkozy. Although predictions can be wrong, at the moment Holland is a clear favorite to unseat his opponent and take the nation’s top job for the next five years.

But it’s the highly personal ambiance of the voting centers that we’re talking about here, not the election result. And ambiance there is, aplenty.

In the current French voting system, on election day the polls close at 6:p.m. in villages and small towns. They shut down at 7:p.m. in  slightly larger or medium-sized settlements and at 8:p.m. in larger cities. The official national results aren’t announced until the 8:p.m. deadline.

I live, however, in a Normandy village that ends polling two hours earlier and here, for ambiance, is what happened there at first round poll-closing time.

In the last minutes before the deadline, several dozen village citizens, husbands, wives, even children, started to arrive in the Mayor’s office just to watch the vote count.  In the corner, a marble bust of Marianne, the symbol of the French republic that emerged from the country’s revolution against the monarchy in 1789,  gazed down benignly as the Mayor, responsible for making sure everything operates according to the rules, paced around, wrist watch in hand, counting out the remaining time—“two minutes, one minute, 30 seconds, 5 seconds, 4, 3, 2, 1—Voting closed!”

In an instant, half a dozen members of the local village council left their places along the wall to start arranging vote-counting tables in the center of the room and in front of the two curtained voting booths that been put in place for the day.

Another took the transparent plastic voting urn and discharged its pile of blue envelopes containing voters choices onto another table where more village volunteers started arranging them in easy-to-distribute piles of 10 envelopes each.

First check ordered by the mayor was to count the total number of envelopes (474 to be exact) against the number of citizens checked off on the village records as having voted. The numbers –an impressive 82 percent of the village’s registered voters–matched. So the next steps began.

Village council members or simply volunteering village residents quickly took their places as vote counters–three at each of three separate tables. Roughly a third of the envelopes then were placed on each table where the one of the counters then opened them one by one and announced the name of the candidate voted for. Each of the other two counters–to provide double security against mistakes–put a check mark against that name on a list of candidates in front of them.

During this whole exercise the village Monsieur Le Maire circulated from counting table to counting table peering sternly over shoulders and periodically asking everyone in the room to remain very silent so that the counters could concentrate on their jobs. He had to be stern. Even the tiniest mistake in the any of the procedures might cause the invalidity of his village’s election results.

Periodically–eight times in my village–one of the counters would turn up a blank or otherwise invalid ballot and signal it to the Mayor, who collected and saved it for the record.

When all the envelopes had been opened, all the names announced and all the name-checked lists compared for accuracy and signed for the record by the checkers, the Mayor announced the results to those in the room and then quickly retired to his office to telephone them to the regional voting authorities.

Elapsed time for the count in my village with a bit more than 500 registered voters–52 minutes with a gendarmerie car arriving soon after to pick up all the ballots, envelopes and counting sheets and take them to the regional government centers.

Meanwhile, after a lot of handshaking and back slapping all around, everyone then started quickly to leave for their homes to watch or listen to the announcement of the national results at 8: p.m.

If you didn’t find time to experience the ambiance on April 22, there’s still that last chance on May 6.

Remember, however, the fewer the number of voters, the quicker the vote count.

That’s why the smaller the community, the easier it will be to peek in and join the fun. However, even in the big cities where the line-up to vote often can be long, there’s no line-up just to go and watch the count. Well worth it any way it works for you.

voting booth photo by Ceridwen (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr], via Wikimedia Commons
ballot box photo by Rama (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr], via Wikimedia Commons
sorting ballots photo by Pierre-Alain Dorange (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr], via Flickr

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