Sunday, May 6, 2007

Doing double civic duty

I discovered at least one major difference between the French and American concepts of popular democracy when I moved to Paris in 1988: other than voting and occasional strikes, the French do not express their opinions to their elected officials. No letter-writing campaigns, no call-ins, no petitions. I also, like many French people, was led to believe that there was something called a “blank vote” that counted as a protest vote—none of you stand for what I want, so I vote against you all. I thought that was pretty cool. Well, here are 3 things I’ve learned about French democracy since 1988. According to Professor Pierre Rosanvallon, popular elections were the means of constituting “the people”, but once “we the people” voted, they went back to their business, leaving the business of running the state to the people they elected. Thus, French democracy was not, and still is not, what Americans consider “representative” democracy. Things are perhaps changing a little bit in the 21st century though: Ségolène Royal made a point of holding public meetings to learn the true desires and needs of the French electorate and, theoretically at least, built her platform accordingly. And a young colleague who noted with appropriate scorn and dismay the other day that, though it seemed as if once the elections were over, the people were ignored, there seemed to be a greater people’s movement building up, at least through the internet. Rosanvallon has noted such changes in a recent book from which Mme. Royal apparently borrowed a few pages. And as for those “blank” votes, forget it. As was explained on the radio the other day, one goes to vote for someone. Blank votes, like disqualified votes, count for naught. She who would abstain might as well stay at home. So much for cool civic protestation at the polls. The 3rd thing I learned: to vote in any given year, one must register by Dec 31st of the prior year, unless one turns 18 between Jan 1 and the voting date. The deadline is also extended for those who acquire citizenship after Jan 1, but the cutoff date is still, apparently, the end of February. I was therefore able to register and vote, whereas someone else who acquired French citizenship in March could not. Thus, my double civic duty: when I went to vote in the first round with my handwritten voter’s card (because it was too late for machine printing), there was a mini-scandal when I went to put my ballot in the box because they couldn’t find my name on the rolls—it had been added on by hand on a separate page at the very end of the booklet and it took several minutes of exclaiming and protesting and throwing up of hands on the part of several people before someone got the bright idea of looking beyond the computerized pages. When I went to vote this morning in the 2nd round, the woman checking names had put a post-it on that page to find me again, and both she and the “President” (who opens the slot in the box with a lever so you can slip your envelope in, then closes it with an “a voté” (voted!) remarked that they had had to recount the votes several times because, despite the morning’s break with routine, they forgot to go beyond the end of the computerized list to find that extra person whose vote had mysteriously slipped into the box. So Monsieur le Président asked if, to make amends, I would be willing to come help “dépouille les votes” (literally delouse, we count as scrupulously as if picking nits). I don’t know which is more disturbing, the fact that after the mini-scandal of the morning, they had to recount several times before remembering that there was someone listed on a back page, or the surprise they registered when I accepted to join the nit-picking party. Turns out, my precinct votes the furthest left of the 12th arrondissement. So while the radio was announcing Sarkozy 53-57%, all around the room echoed "Ségolène Royal!" But if Sarkozy manages to get the US to comply with Kyoto as he's announcing on the radio right now, perhaps all is not lost.

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