Casting a vote for democracy

For the French, the drama of the ballot box is an almost religious ritual.
french elections
An imagine from the French 2014 municipal elections. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.
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You can be drunk on universal suffrage. Each time I cast my vote in French elections, I feel elated, giddy with Republican joy. And I don’t think I am alone.

Is it to do with the French Revolution? Probably, like with most things political in France. In 1792, all French males twenty-one and over got to vote irrespective of wealth or property. It was among the first such experiments in universal suffrage and democracy, and even though this was swiftly brushed aside by subsequent Republican, Monarchist, and Bonapartist governments, it had set an ideal and a goal for France and the rest of the world.

In France, universal suffrage was then only truly and fully achieved in 1944, with women finally voting alongside men, and the lateness of this, compared with a very early taste in 1792, has provided a powerful narrative for French voters: democracy is fragile, it can be taken away from you overnight and may take a long time to return.

Never taking democracy for granted contributes to the thrills of voting in French elections. Its dramaturgy also plays a big part. Voters cast their ballot in their local state school. As they queue, they can absorb the surroundings — children’s drawings and, very often, the towering bust of Marianne, the emblem of the French Republic. This sets the tone. After showing your polling and identity cards, you can grab, one by one, the small white cards on which each candidate’s name is written. The isoloir or voting booth feels like a confessional, except there is no priest, just you and your citizen’s conscience. In other words, the moment belongs to you and France, and nobody will ever know who you voted for.

You look at the pieces of paper in front of you: what if your vote could decide the fate of the election? The small blue envelope in your hand is pure dynamite. Opening the booth’s curtain, you then approach the Republican altar with a trinity of officials behind it. There are big registers on either side of a huge transparent box. Once the register is signed, you are invited to slip in your blue envelope. ‘A voté’ (has voted) says the official, receiving the sacrament. Why the religious vocabulary? After all, votes always take place on Sundays. Republican rituals have replaced Christian ones.

French voters get to vote twice, two weeks apart. Talking of dramaturgy, the second-round vote becomes even more dramatic after the traditional TV debate between the two finalists. When this tradition was founded in 1974, the duel was broadcast live in 12 other countries and throughout francophone Africa. Today, it is of course available worldwide on the internet for anyone interested. I’m old enough to remember the family tension during those debates, my father being a Gaullist and my mother a Leftist and an environmentalist before it was fashionable. Early debates are the stuff of legend, which political science students watch and study with guilty pleasure and a pot of ice-cream. Centre-Right Valéry Giscard d’Estaing probably won his election in 1974 against Socialist François Mitterrand with this repartee: ‘Vous n’avez pas le monopole du coeur.’ A very closely won election: Giscard d’Estaing got 50.81% of the votes.

Last night, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen debated for almost three hours. There were key sentences, such as when Macron talked about how dependent on the Kremlin Le Pen was, tied up as she is with a multi-million loan to a Russian bank run by Putin’s friends. ‘When you speak to Russia, you talk to your banker,’ he said.  

It is now up to the French to have a debate with themselves and slip that small blue envelope into that big transparent urn called democracy.

Agnès Poirier

Agnès Poirier is a journalist, writer and broadcaster based in Paris and London. She is the UK editor for the French weekly magazine L’Express and the author of, among others, 'Left Bank: Arts, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris (1940-1950)' and 'Notre-Dame: The Soul of France'.

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