Tales from
the Loir

A Weekly Column

April 24, 2002 - Election Day in Saint Rimay

Aprille and I were invited to attend the first round of the French presidential elections on Sunday. My friend Jean Montambaux has been talking about the presidential elections for over a month and wants me to witness the event. He brought me the official brochures of the sixteen candidates. It is supposed to be a boring affaire between Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac but many are telling me that the other fourteen candidates could make a strong showing. Indeed, there is a choice for everybody that wants to make a specific statement with his or her vote.

There are candidates in the center like Chirac and Jospin who are favored to face off in the second round. But aside from the two centrist candidates who would both be considered left wing radicals in the States, there is a Communist Party candidate, a fascist who tells racist joke as a part of his campaign and an unusual crowd touting varied issues in the middle. There are three varieties of environmentalists, several workers parties, a radical left party, and parties addressing specific issues. One is for hunting, fishing and maintaining the traditions of France. There is another representing the family and several for the workers of France.

All candidates are all treated with equal importance on Election Day. Money is not as big an issue in the campaigns as in America. All a candidate has to do is get five hundred signatures from other elected officials to be an official candidate. The government handles all election-day publicity and mails each voter a packet full of the candidate’s government approved brochures.

There are two days of elections for president. Unlike America where everything is taken care of on one day, the French have something like a tournament in late April to elect to the two top contenders. Then the top two vote getters square off again on the first Sunday in May to determine the winner. The legislature is elected separately in June. Elections are always on Sunday so that everyone has all day long to vote.

On Sunday morning we drive over to the village of Saint Rimay to pick up Jean and his wife Eliane so we can watch them vote. The village is full of cars so we park in the courtyard of our friend Andre Desneux and recruit him to demonstrate the voting method. Andre lives just across the street from the Mayor's office where the voting takes place but he refuses to cross the street in his work cloths. We wait for Andre to change cloths and cross the street to watch the French exercise their right and duty.

There is a large table set up outside the entrance to the voting room filled with bottles of wine and snacks. We walk up to the table where people are refreshing themselves and learn that the wine is not for the voters but we are offered a petit verre nonetheless. I am not surprised that wine is being served in the voting area but I am relieved that it is not an official function. Just a few years ago, all bars were closed on Election Day in the States and I can't get this idea out of my head that alcohol is bad for voting.

We walk into the voting room and meet the Mayor, Pierre Capps, and members of the Municipal Counsel who are handling the voting. The Mayor and the counsel are sitting behind a long table that contains sixteen stacks of four-inch square white paper. Each piece of paper is a ballot that the French call a bulletin. Each bulletin has a name of a candidate.

Voters show an identification card and are given a blue envelope. The voters take one or more of the bulletins and the blue envelope into a curtained booth where he or she votes in secret by putting one of the bulletins in the blue envelopes. The voter then takes the blue envelope and places it in a slot in the top of a large glass box guarded by the Mayor. The Mayor records the act of voting by pushing a button that rings a bell as the envelope falls into the box. All of the excess bulletins are left in a pile in the voting booth. Jean, Elaine and Andre vote and the bell peals three times for democracy.

This voting system is simple and efficient in stark contrast to the American system of voting for everything and everybody on one day. An American ballot contains the names of candidates ranging from the President of the United States to the Commissioner of the local water department. American ballots also contain complex constitutional, legislative and administrative amendments that no one can decipher. But the downside to the French system is everyone must come back several times to finish all the voting.

We are told to come back at six o’clock for the vote count. The vote count is a public event and everyone is entitled to come and witness it. At six o’clock, the Mayor asks if anyone else wants to vote. If no one comes forward, the two locks on the box of bulletins is opened and the count begins. Three people record the results on tally sheets to be sure the count is accurate. The envelopes are opened by the counsel members and handed to the Mayor who calls out the name printed on the bulletin.

Occasionally, the bulletin is blank which is called voting white (blanc) and it is called a nul. If there are two or more different candidates in the envelope, the vote is canceled (nul). If there are two bulletins with the same candidate, one vote is counted and the other is nul. There are absolutely no hanging chads.

As the Mayor calls out the names of the candidates, one name surprises all with its frequency. It is the name of the radical right candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen. He has never tallied more that a few votes in this village before. At the end of the day, he has twice as many votes as the closest rival. Two counsel members whisper to me that this is a shocking development that no one expected.

On the way home, I checked the results posted in our village. It is practically the same as Saint Rimay. Later in the evening I learn that Le Pen has finished second with about 17% of the votes and will be in the runoff in May.

I am told that Le Pen’s good showing was due to voter apathy and that 28% of voters failed to show up at the polls. That means that 62% did vote. The last Presidential election in America drew about 50% of the registered voters.

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April 17, 2002 -Surprise Review

April 3, 2002 - Spring in Lavardin
March 20, 2002 - Guest Columnist /Furman Magazine/ John Roberts
March 13, 2002 - Tête de Veau
March 6, 2002 - Table Etiquette
February 27, 2002 - A Country Boy Can Survive
February 20, 2002 - Driving in France
February 13, 2002 - The Circus
February 6, 2002 - History of France
January 30, 2002 - THE BEST I EVER HAD
January 23, 2002 - Miranda This
January 16, 2002 - Charlotte Observer Interview
January 9, 2002 - Walnut Wine
January 2, 2002 - Sloe Gin
December 26, 2001 - Winter Solstice
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2001
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000



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