Geraldine Smith, British expat in France relates what can go wrong if you don’t know the voting in France rules – particularly if you are a foreigner…
When we had elections in our village, excitement mounted for several months beforehand. It started with posters and then leaflets in the letterbox, continued with animated conversations in the Boulangerie and culminated in heated discussions in the Bar. The Mayor, a man noted for his luxurious handlebar moustache, had been in office for three terms, a term being six years. I had seen him at a distance at village fetes and, once, when we first moved in, at my front door when a water main burst in the road and we had to move our car. He introduced himself to me as the Mayor and, totally overwhelmed and confused as to why such a dignitary would be at my door, I curtsied – something my husband still finds amusing ten years later.
Having learned that the Mayor had been in power for such a long time, my husband announced that this was too long for anybody to hold a public office and that he was determined to vote. We knew nothing about voting in France and nothing about village elections. We had seen posters in other villages but the only information gleaned from those was from photographs which all portrayed mayors with large moustaches – perhaps a prerequisite for the role. Eventually we discovered that a team has to be created to oppose the existing Mayor, it is not a matter of just one person standing up to be counted. We scrutinised the various leaflets and were happy with the philosophy of the opposing team, but I think we would have voted for it anyway, just to have a change.
We registered in order to vote by taking our passports and a utility bill to the Mairie and, in due course, received our voting cards through the post. We felt empowered and inspired and encouraged our expat friends to vote too. After all, most of them used criticising the Mayor as a hobby, what had they not complained about over a glass of rose on a hot summers evening? We were confident that we would make a difference at the election and happy that a member of the new team was Christine, a local mother of two who spoke excellent English, energetic and professional, she seemed to share our values and ideas. Fuelled by a love for this tiny village, ideology and copious amounts of rosé we all vowed to vote and make change.
Came the day. The election was held in a building with steep internal steps leading up to a large hall dominated by the French flag and a bust of Marianne complete with red, white and blue sash. The steps were crowded with villagers all chatting, the queue shuffled forward extremely slowly, and the steep stairs proving difficult for many of the locals who are less than agile after many years spent stooping in the vineyards. We came to the door and peered into the hall. Everyone who entered was given a tiny envelope. To the left was a table with leaflets listing the current team and separately, the new team. In front of the table were three tall and slim canvas booths, rather like medieval tents, joined shakily in a row. People seemed to be just walking through the booths – we couldn’t understand their use. We shuffled through holding our envelopes and one of the leaflets, the one detailing the new team. The opposing team were seated at a long table, in front was an imposing man and a large wooden ballot box, and to their right was a person with a ledger. As people came forward handing their little envelope their name was announced to the room, they then put the envelope in the box and went to sign the ledger.
The nearer we got the more agitated became my husband. ‘We don’t know what to do – what do we put in the envelope?’
Eventually he joined a group of people and, waving the leaflet in front of them, explained he wanted to vote for this team. The whole room fell silent. Gently he was told that he had been supposed to pick up both leaflets and jettison one in the booths, unobtrusively and confidentially, then put the leaflet, showing the team he wanted, discreetly into his envelope. Wonderful. Now there wasn’t a person present who did not know that we were voting for the new team. After voting and signing the ledger we made our escape. On the way out Christine beckoned me over, she indicated a man standing in the corner of the room. ‘There is the leader of our team, the man who hopes to be the new Mayor’.
I smiled and turned to look. My heart sunk. He had virtually no moustache, just a token wisp of hair on his upper lip.
Of course the old (moustachioed) Mayor was re-elected – won by a whisker.
Of course we were the only non-French in the village to vote, our friends having discovered more interesting things to do that morning.
That was over a month ago, but I know that, in quiet moments, now the dust has settled, the Mayor is sitting behind his enormous mahogany desk, under the tricolour flag, twirling his moustache like a music hall villain. He will be wondering, just wondering, what he can do about the English couple who so blatantly voted for the other side. We cower in our house, it will be no surprise if we wake up one morning and find double yellow lines outside, or perhaps a Bar in the vacant shop next door. We keep our heads down. We smile every time we pass the Mairie. I practice my curtsey.