Last Sunday, I reached another major milestone in becoming French. I VOTED for the very first time in my new country!
Across France, this year it's all about municipal elections. New mayor and town councils are being decided everywhere. Paris has its own rather unique system, though, in voting, which is a little bit like the American electoral college system for our Presidential elections, in that when you vote, your vote doesn't count directly towards electing someone; instead, your vote helps influence which party has the majority in your area, and that majority in turn influences who ACTUALLY gets elected.
Allow me to explain. As you probably know, Paris is divided into 20 districts, or arrondissements. I live in the 9th and we used to live in the 18th; the Louvre is in the 1st, Notre Dame in the 4th, the Eiffel Tower in the 7th on the border of the 15th, and so on. If you were to look at a map of Paris with the arrondissements marked, you'd see that the 1st arrondissement is in the dead center, and then they spiral out from there from the middle towards the edges of the périphérique or ring road.
Politically, the city is almost divided 50-50 east and west by the "right" and the "left" parties. There are a lot of political parties in France, and they range from "far right" (Marine Le Pen's annoying and rather scary Front National, and I don't care if I piss anyone off by saying they are probably the most racist and xenophobic of all the parties) to the UMP party which is the biggest right-wing group (Sarkozy and Chirac were UMPs), to some more centrist parties like the EELV or "Green" party, to the PS or Partie Socialiste which is current President Hollande's party. And before you get all up in my face about socialism, you can relax: the PS is like the Democrats/liberals in the US while the UMP is like the Republicans/conservatives, they are simply the two biggest parties in France, just like in America we have two major parties and then a bunch of other ones that have less influence. And FYI socialism here is NOT the same as communism either -- the communists are even farther to the left (and they have a HUGE modern headquarters building over in the 20th). I only mention this because in America we've been brainwashed since McCarthyism that socialism and communism are one and the same, and that we have something to fear from socialism when we really don't, and so some people hear "socialism" and just freak the hell out when they really don't need to. OK, stepping off political soapbox now.
So... if you looked at a map of the city, in general the arrondissements to the west seem to vote UMP and those to the east seem to vote PS. Which is funny because the west is on the LEFT of the map and the east is on the RIGHT... so the left of Paris votes right, and the right votes left. ::wink wink:: Each arrondissement, by the way, has its own "Maire" (mayor) and its own local council; then the City of Paris has the main Mayor and Council that work out of the beautiful Hôtel de Ville, the City Hall.
All elections in France are done in two rounds, on two consecutive Sundays. Sunday elections typically mean a better turnout as most people aren't working, so they can't use that as an excuse not to vote. A few weeks before the election, all registered voters (I had to register before end of December in order to qualify to vote in 2014) receive what are known as "les Listes": these are the lists of the candidates or group of candidates for each party in that town, or in the case of Paris in the arrondissement where you are registered. You also get a flyer stating each party's position on the issues, so you can read them and be informed before you vote, and have no excuse for "not knowing" and that all parties can be equally represented in time for the actual voting. In the 9th, as an example, there were only 7 parties who had lists; the Communists didn't make a showing here for whatever reason. Some arrondissements may have had as many as 9 or 10 lists. Each list had a main candidate name, and several others. Presumably, if a particular list wins, the main candidate would probably become mayor of that arrondissment but Georges says sometimes that doesn't happen, as that city council ends up voting internally after the elections, and choosing their own mayor. So, you're not necessarily voting for an individual, you're voting for a group of people who will chose the mayor.
So last weekend was the first round, when all the parties are represented in the elections. For the second round, which will be this Sunday, the parties who had at least 10% of the vote in the first round, move to the second round. If any party got more than 50% of the vote in the first round, however, that party automatically wins that district, and there IS no second round there. This happened in 4 arrondissements last Sunday, all of them UMP majorities.
Our "Listes" and information sheets... in no particular order.
This Sunday, we'll go back to the polls, where anyone who didn't bother to vote in the first round can still vote in the second where the choices have now been narrowed down to two or three; often the turnout is better for the second round. Another thing to understand about voting in France - you don't get to mix and match your vote across different parties the way you can in America where you might vote for a Republican for President and a Democrat for your local Congressional representative or mayor of your town. But in this election, we were only voting for locals, there were no regional or national or European elections. (FYI in May there is an election for France's representative for the European Parliament and I'll also get to vote in that one as well!)
Once all the arrondissements have their winners following Round 2 (and the parties who were runners-up designate their representatives to fill out the balance of each of the 20 town councils), it is the members of ALL 20 councils that get together and vote for the new Mayor of Paris, and collectively they ALL become the City Council of Paris as well. This indirect voting system is apparently only done in Paris; in the rest of France when a new Mayor or town council needs to be elected, your vote counts directly towards that decision.
As far as the actual voting process, it was quite similar to what I'm used to in New Jersey, except that there is no ballot where you have to push buttons, pull levers, check boxes or punch out chads. Instead, here's how it works:
- You enter your polling place based on your address (ours was right around the corner at the nearest elementary school). There's a table where you present your Carte Electorale/voter id card and they check off your name on a list; they also put a date stamp on the back of your card in the first available blank spot. On that same table are copies of "Les Listes", the same ones you received in the mail. You are not supposed to discuss candidates or issues at all while inside the polling place - interdit! You must pick up at least 2 of Les Listes, but you can take one of each if you like. They hand you a small blue envelope. And you go into a booth and draw the curtain for privacy.
- There is nothing in the booth but a narrow shelf inside. And no one is allowed to go in there with you so Georges couldn't come in with me (though we whispered to each other through the booth dividing wall). All you do is choose which of Les Listes you're voting for, fold it into quarters, and insert it into the blue envelope, then tuck the flap inside to close it and conceal your vote. You have to take the other Listes you didn't choose with you in your pocket or purse, so the booth is clear for the next voter. (Photo from inside the booth -- shh, don't tell! -- with ballots to choose from, again in NO PARTICULAR ORDER.)
- Then you get in the line to hand in your envelope/vote. Because this was my first time, Georges got permission to take photos during this part after he cast his own vote. You reach the ballot box where there is a man or woman presiding over the official vote.
- You hand her your Carte Electorale and your official ID, which in France can be either your passport or your national ID card.
- She reads off your name and the helpers on either side of her search for your name on their register of voters. They confirm that you are in the registry.
- Then, you put your blue envelope in the ballot box.
- She says "A voté!" ("Voted!")
- You sign the register next to your name to seal the deal.
- And that's it, you're done! If it's your first time, they will all be smiling benevolently and congratulating you. (People who volunteer to work a polling place on election day really appreciate and value the democratic process.) They got a big kick out of us; I'm guessing they don't often have naturalized new citizens coming through so it must break up the long day nicely to have something different happening.
It was unexpectedly moving for me, casting this first vote, even moreso than on the day I got my citizenship letter or the day of my naturalization ceremony. For the first time, as I stood in line ready to cast my ballot, I suddenly TRULY felt French. In that moment, being a citizen in France wasn't only about the big convenience factor that the second passport adds to my and our personal lives. Suddenly, I was a part of something bigger than myself: I was a part of a democratic process that was very hard-won and which took nearly 100 years - and the guillotine - to firmly and permanently instill, mainly because the first attempts at getting France to be a Republic rather than a monarchy didn't go very well, thanks to those pesky Napoleons.
I held it together through the entire official process, and then as soon as Georges and I, and my friend Lisa and her friend Yann, who came along to witness my big moment, stepped outside into the school yard, I turned around to throw myself at Georges and I burst into tears all over his coat, laughing at the same time. Lisa said she had been very moved too, and Georges as well. I was just NOT expecting to have that sort of reaction. But hey, that's me: I am a cryer.
It's quite wonderful to know that I am lucky enough to be a national of two countries that have embraced democracy, almost at the same time and both rejecting a ruling monarchy to establish a free and independent form of government by the people, albeit on somewhat different paths. When you stop and consider that there are still so many places in the world where people do NOT have this right, where there are even fake elections made to appear democratic when everyone knows you vote for the dictator or else, I think we Americans and we French are very blessed to have a voice. My two countries may have their differences from time to time, and I will always feel more American than French (and will probably never lose my American accent while speaking French... unfortunately). But I'm fortunate that the ideologies of both are not in conflict with one another and that I will never have to "choose sides". I can have both. And I will keep voting in both.
As far as who will become the new Mayor of Paris, it remains to be seen; the candidates from the UMP had a slight edge over the PS after Round 1 (based, I assume, on how each of the 20 arrondissements were leaning after that round) even though the PS candidate had been expected to win since that candidate is currently the deputy mayor under Bertrand Delanoë. Following the first round, however, the PS candidate brokered a deal with the Greens (who actually came out first in the 2nd arrondissement but who have no hope of winning anywhere else) where the Greens are throwing their full support to the PS. The PS tried the same with the far left -- those "Commies" as Archie Bunker or Joe McCarthy would have said -- but they weren't going for it, at least not officially. We now think the election could go either way, it's just that close.
One thing IS for certain, however: the next mayor of Paris will be a WOMAN for the very first time in history, as the two main candidates are both women! It will be quite interesting to see how a woman governs this city, which is so beautiful but which has so many problems that need solving, from high unemployment to homelessness to too much dog poo on the sidewalks... to padlocks on bridges.
To the polls, Parisians!