French Lessons: Voting in France

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Becoming French has its perks. The biggest perk is never having to renew my carte de séjour ever again, but being able to vote in French elections is high up there too. It’s one thing to follow another system online, but it’s another living and learning to have to navigate a new system. I have to say while we often take what we grow up with as the “right” way to do something. Learning how another country works is fascinating and really we all have a lot we can learn from each other. While I lived here during the Presidential elections in 2012 (French presidents are in office for 5 years), actually being able to vote changes one’s perspective.

To vote in France you have to be 18 years old. You register by December 31st. (I was lucky and filled in my forms right before the end of the year). By early April registered voters receive their “carte electorale” which has your voting locations and you must vote at that location within your arrondissement. Before both the first round voting (April 23) and second round voting (May 7th) registered voters receive a mailing with flyers for each candidate as well their name cards (these you vote with, but are also available at the local voting center).

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Unlike the U.S. system, the election cycle is much shorter (and far less agonizing in that respect). France is not a two-party system, but rather home to many parties. The first round vote narrows down the large pool of candidates; the two candidates who receive the most votes will move on to the second, and final round. (John Oliver explains the system well.). Typically the two main parties — gauche/socialist and droite — move forward but neither made it through to the second round. In fact, Emmanuel Macron made up a party, “En marche!” translating to “let’s get going,” for his candidature. There are spending limits for each candidate, and each candidate has equal media time. During the debates, there is literally a clock tracking how much each candidate speaks. The debates last over two hours and end after midnight – interesting for a country with only one time zone. 24 hours leading up to the election French media nor candidates are not allowed to make statements (in this case, even to refute what has been dubbed as “Macron Leaks”.).

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Voting happens on a Sunday in France, which helps account for the country’s high voter turnout which tends to be above 80%. (Speaks volumes to the U.S. which votes on a Tuesday and has about 50% turnout, even with early voting). The catch with the May 7th election is that it falls on a holiday weekend (Victory Day – one of three holidays in the month of May in France). During Presidential elections in France you are only voting for one person, and nothing else. The U.S. scantron and electronic voting system typically has at least 10 things on the ballot. In France there are the two rounds of elections, followed by a vote for the legislators a month later.

During my first ever French election [first round voting] I was in Dublin, which became an eye opening experience on how everything is not what one expects. As an American living abroad I’m used to absentee voting, which involves me applying for an absentee ballot and mailing in my vote to my home state before the election date. My eyes nearly popped out of my head that I learn that in France you vote by procuration, or essentially sending a friend to vote in your your place. My initial reaction was “voter fraud” but after having lived it through two elections now, I have to say it works. It is also very official and you go to the Mairie [Mayor’s office] to register in advance. So while in Dublin at a workshop I received a text from my friend — I voted! For French citizens who live abroad it is common to register and vote at your local French Embassy. The queue may be long, but there’s a certain pride that goes along with voting in person.

So how does voting actually work?

  1. Based on your carte electorale you know where to vote. Voting locations, like the U.S. are at schools, but also at the Mairie [Mayor’s office] of each arrondissement [district].pretavoyager-bureaudevote18
  2. You are given a number for your bureau de vote so you know which queue to wait in (my voting center had two).
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  3. You cut the line to go pick up your small brown envelope. First you check in with your French I.D. You’re asked if you’re free later to come count votes, and then are told to pick up your name cards to go vote behind the curtains. The interesting thing here is that you’re required to pick up two names so that it is not obvious who you’ll be voting for. This year the name cards added braille for blind voters.
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  4. You go “behind the curtain” to place your vote – folded inside the envelope.
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  5. You destroy the card of the candidate you are not voting for and drop it in the big bin on your way out. (You the try to make out crumpled names to get a quick sense of the results as you walk by.)
  6. Given this is France you go back to the end of the longer queue. This is the part that confused me, as typically choosing your candidate is the longer part of the process. This line is to officially cast your vote.
  7. At the front of the line there is a big clear box with votes in it. First you have to be checked in yet again with your official I.D. card. There is a big paper ledger with all of the registered voters. There is a clear plastic line guide to ensure you’re signing in the right box.
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  8. Once checked in the officiator of the box opens a small latch and tells you to put your envelope inside. She then says “A voté” to signal your vote has been counter [the latch has a counter associated with it] and stamps the back of your carte electorale. (I didn’t think to give my friend my voter card, hence no stamp for the first round.)
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Congratulations! You may not have an “I voted” sticker, but you have voted in France! And now that I’ve voted and written this post, I have to jet out to vote again. Don’t worry, just voting by procuration, for a friend. Not too shabby to be voting twice in my first official French presidential election ;)

UPDATE: Emmanuel Macron won! He takes office next Sunday. Compared to the Americans (election early November, inauguration in late January), here’s one time the French sure work fast….

2 comments

  • Gauche IS socialist (and then there are farther-left parties, too). You mean right (the républicains of Fillon) and socialist. Though the right in France is to the left of U.S. Democrats on many issues.

    • Updated! I knew I was writing this post too fast ;) Thanks for catching that.