Sunday, November 2, 2008


Last May I was lucky enough to be traveling through France during the presidential elections. As our election day approaches I thought I would write a little something about the French election process as I experienced it.

The presidential election dominated the news and cafe conversations. I was having lunch with my friend Matthieu, a radio journalist, who was trying to explain the French voting process to me. Mid sentence he stopped and said, "I know Mary! Why don't you just come with me to vote in the primaries tomorrow morning?! That way I can show you how it works."

So I woke up extra early the next day to stand in line with Matthieu. 84% of the French population voted in 2007 so the line was long (64% of US voters turned out for our 2004 election). We finally entered the gymnasium. Matthieu showed his ID card and signed his name in a giant book documenting his participation in the election. He was then handed an unmarked white envelope and 12 post-it size pieces of paper with one of the 12 candidate's names printed on it. Matthieu then ducked into the voting booth closing the velvet curtain behind him. All I could see was his feet and a waste paper basket.

Two seconds later he popped back out and dropped his envelope in the big box. "So? What happened in there?" I asked. "Simple, you put the name of your candidate in the envelope and you throw the other pieces of paper away. Then tonight they will open all the envelops and whoever has the most pieces of paper wins." Aside from the obvious environmental concerns (all that wasted paper!) I loved the simplicity and anonymity of this system.

Nicolas Sarkozy of the Union pour un Movement Populaire and Segolene Royale of the Parti Socialiste emerged as the two front runners. They now had two weeks to win over a majority of the electorate and piece together political coalitions with the remaining political parties. France has a mutli party system, there are roughly 18 parties ranging from the Parti Communiste Français to the Front National. This multi party system prevents any one party from dominating the political scene and forces politicians to work together inorder to gain enough support to win the national election.

Let the games begin! During the next two weeks the candidates were not immune from mud slinging, but it seemed to me that they both spent most of their energy talking about the issues. I mentioned this observation to the hotel owner I was dining with and they said, "Mais oui! In the states your election is a glorified beauty pageant! All you care about it personality, not zee issues." While I found that observation a little harsh, I could see where he was coming from. The conversations that I had been overhearing all week were all about complex tax policy and how best to restructure the French medical program with a level of understanding and detail that would be lost most Americans.

Two weeks later it was election day and I was sitting in my hotel room in Bayeux. The restaurants were empty that night so there was no use trying to get any book research done. So I was munching on my dinner (a sanwich) half listening to the TV thinking we wouldn't have the results for at least a day or two. Two film crews were following Royale and Sarkozy. The shots were jumping back and forth between the two official galas and then at 9 o'clock à la Time Square on New Years Eve the news anchor begins a countdown 10...9...8...shot of Royale...7...close up of Sarkozy...6...Royale...5...Sarkozy...4...3...I am thinking they can't be serious! Are they really going to announce the winner tonight?!.....2....1...The next great leader of France....Sarkozy! My mind was blown. How on earth did they already count all the votes? Don't they need to double check the for hanging chads? Aren't there any law suits? No scandals of voter discrimination? No. It all seemed so easy. So simple. It could have something to do with the fact that France comfortable resides in one time zone and only has 60million residents verses America's 305million, but still, I was impressed.

As our election day approaches I am humbled by the interest Europe has taken in our politics. The US election is consistently covered on the nightly news and makes the front page of most daily newspapers. The level of detail in which the French can discuss our politics is both flattering and slightly embarrassing. Their knowledge and interest inspires me to be the most well informed and active American I can be.

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