Monday, April 16, 2007


While the candidates began girding themselves last week for the hectic run-up to the first round of the presidential elections next Sunday, the Postal Service did its job admirably. Alas, the same cannot be said for the press – at least, for some parts of it.

On Election Day, voting procedures in France are similar to those in many other countries around the world. One goes to one's polling station and presents one's voting card and ID. One enters the voting booth and pulls the curtain closed. One inserts a voting slip corresponding to one's choice into an envelope and closes it. One exits the voting booth, and finally deposits one's envelope in a (usually) translucent container. In France, as the envelope is inserted, a somewhat stentorian voice frequently rings out: A voté ! ('Has voted !'). One exits the polling station and goes about one's usual Sunday business.

This sequence supposes, naturally, that the voter has thought about the issues and individuals - and has had enough information to make a choice. All of the election procedures here are set by the Ministry of the Interior so as to ensure égalité among the candidates. Sizes, formats, and content of all electoral materials, whether audiovisual or printed, are regulated for everyone. There is none of this folderol about making an 'X' on a lengthy paper ballot, or adding the name of a write-in candidate at the last minute.

Approximately two weeks before each election, whether local, regional or national, a thick brown envelope is delivered by mail via La Poste to each registered voter in a French household. It contains what the French call les professions de foi ('professions of faith'). In the USA this might simply be called 'information about the candidates and their platforms' – 'voter information', in word. Accompanying these professions de foi in the envelope are the approved voting slips to be used on Election Day: there is one profession and one voting slip for each candidate, which can be taken to the polling place on The Day.

It should be noted that - interestingly enough for a secular country such as France - the term profession de foi has been borrowed from the religious sphere. It usually used to designate the credo of Roman Catholics, the Shema Israël for Jews, and the Shahada for Muslims. By extension over the years, the locution in French civil society has come to mean any public declaration of a given doctrine - that of a politician or a political party, for example.

If one is curious about the number and tenor of campaign promises allegedly made by a candidate, or if one is wondering just how the media have deformed or bowdlerized a given platform or misrepresented an individual or a party, or if one really hasn't made up one's mind about whom to vote for, the professions de foi are welcome indeed. Mme Amerloque has passed along her set to Amerloque for perusal.

For this election, each profession is 29.5 centimeters (11.6 inches) by 41 centimeters (16.2 inches), folded once in half. All of them, by the way, are printed on recycled paper: it is one of the conditions for obtaining campaign subsidies from the government. Eleven of the twelve candidates have decided to distribute a relatively basic four-page leaflet – but one of them obviously gave more a bit more thought to how to obtain more bang for the buck. Top marks for creativity in graphic layout this time around must go to M Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose profession unfolds neatly to make … a campaign poster, on one full side.

Amerloque wonders what the Socialist Party advisers were thinking of when they signed off on Mme Ségolène Royal's graphics (if, of course, they really did): her chosen colors are red, white and black, the very same as Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party of sinister memory. As a historical reference, it certainly leaves a lot to be desired, in Amerloque's view - and several older French people Amerloque frequents have commented bitterly on the choice. The 'Greens' (les Verts) quite naturally have a predominantly green brochure (little creativity there, alas !), while José Bové's flyer immediately reminds Amerloque of old Reader's Digest advertising, with fake yellow highlightings everywhere. Flyers from the Right generally contain quite a bit of blue, the traditional color of France. Only one profession is not in color, as a matter of fact: it belongs to the Trotskyite Gérard Schivardi, whose electoral propaganda had to be revised at the last minute by order of the Electoral Commission since it was outside the norm.

As might be expected, the texts emanating from the Left are quite earnest and turgid, written in a kind of political jargon seemingly designed for intellectuals rather than for that huge mass of modern voters who nowadays read far less but pay far more attention to the media. In many ways, these professions remind Amerloque of another age, of the rhetoric prevalent in France from 1968 and throughout the 70s right up to 1981, when François Mitterrand was elected. Just as unsurprisingly, the texts from the Right are heavy on keywords, buzzy concepts and photos. Both M Nicolas Sarkozy and M François Bayrou are pictured against the verdant French countryside in the background, attempting to instill a feeling of solidity and timelessness, much as M François Mitterrand did in 1981 with his force tranquille ('quiet strength'). Amerloque finds that M Philippe de Villiers' profession seems bizarrely unprofessional: it appears to be a series of short texts written by different individuals and combined on the pages at the last minute.

No candidate here in France can ever really say that the voters 'didn't know' about her or his message: all registered voters receive this package of professions de foi and it is simply up to them to become as informed as they desire. The French voter who genuinely wants information about the candidates and their platforms will take the necessary time to read and attempt to understand these professions. From Amerloque's experience, the information contained therein frequently contributes to animated discussions at the office: some candidates' words, phrases and positions can be examined and parsed in detail over several days – especially when they are at variance (sometimes significantly so !) with versions appearing in the media.

At first glance, not too much can be said about the voting slips, called bulletins de vote. Each one is 14.5 centimeters (5.9 inches) by 10.5 centimeters (4.13 inches): solid white, with black printing. Only the candidate's first and last names appear on the paper, and the last name must be capitalized. One is theoretically supposed to bring the slip corresponding to one's voting choice to the polling place and use it on The Day - but naturally the full range of voting slips is available there, should one forget.

It should be noted that one's vote can be invalidated for quite a number of reasons - and that quite a few of them depend on the voting slip, so its importance should not be underestimated. The law lays down complete guidelines: Article 24 of the Decree of March 8, 2001 provides that votes are invalid if:

1 – the voting slip is different from the one provided by the government;
2 – the voting slip is handwritten;
3 – the voting slip contains the name of a candidate who does not appear on the official list established by the Constitutional Council;
4 – the voting slip is blank;
5 – the voting slip is not contained in an envelope;
6 - the voting slip does not contain 'enough details';
7 – the voting slip and/or the envelope contain the voter's name or identity;
8 – the voting slip is contained in unauthorized envelope;
9 - the voting step is printed on colored paper;
10 - the voting slip (and/or the envelope) contains identifying marks anywhere
11 - the voting slip contains written insults of candidates or of others;
12 - several voting slips in the same envelope contain different candidates' names.

and, finally:

13 - Envelopes containing no voting slip whatsoever are null and void.

In the 2002 presidential election, there was a minor problem with the voting slips. No one had really expected M Jean-Marie Le Pen to reach the second round runoff; not enough voting slips had been printed ahead of time. As voters began receiving the updated professions de foi and voting slips in the mail, M Le Pen accused the government of printing his second round voting slips on 'cheap paper', of a quality inferior to that being used for the incumbent, M Jacques Chirac. As far as Amerloque could determine at the time from press reports, M Le Pen was both right and wrong, since only in some precincts were 'cheap' voting slips supplied to the voters: the majority were printed on 'normal paper' (although the one received in the mail by Mme Amerloque was indeed a cheapo !).

In Amerloque's view, it is fortunate indeed that there are the professions de foi. Any impartial observer of French political life would find it difficult to assert that the media is doing a truly honest job of reporting about the candidates and their positions. As in 2002, many observers of French political life – Amerloque among them – are watching in some horror, tinged with a great deal of sadness, as the allegedly 'independent' mainstream media reveal their true colors. In a word, they believe that the French voter is a fool and that she or he can be maneuvered at will. They seem to have forgotten that two major events have taken place in France since the last presidential election. One was the French people's vote against the adoption of the European Constitutional Treaty, and the other was the urban riots lasting something like three weeks. In Amerloque's view, these have forever changed the way a lot of French people look all the candidates' political programs and politics.

Over the past two weeks or so the media and the candidates have been ratcheting up the rhetoric, resorting to name-calling and ad hominem arguments, directed principally against M Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been the frontrunner in poll after poll for many months (M Le Pen, of course, is still treated as the zenith of human evil, a carrier of political plague beyond the pale, and is rarely given a fair shake), while M François Bayrou inches ever upward. Accusations against M Sarkozy are hurled daily in and by the press, ranging from corruption and dishonesty to being a semi-hysterical advocate of racism and eugenics. Mme Ségolène Royal and various Socialist Party representatives, including her designated spokespeople, have become increasingly shrill and vituperative: Mme Royal herself even accused M Sarkozy of being responsible for "civil war" in the projects. Her rhetoric has veered from 'vote for me and my 100 point Socialist program for France' to 'vote to stop the Right'. While such a plea may have pleased the voters in 1981, there is no guarantee that it will play at all to the electors of today. Times have changed, and it's a big world out there. Since 1981 both 'globalization' and 'Europe' have struck France in significant fashions – and the French in their majority are fully aware of that.

Part of the apparent Socialist desperation undoubtedly comes (at least in Amerloque's view) from the fact that there just doesn't seem to be a growing groundswell of support for Mme Royal, who quite clearly in the view of many lacks the competence - not to mention the gravitas - required for the Presidency. An anonymous group of Socialist Party members writing under the pen name 'Spartacus' stated last week that its members would be supporting … M Bayrou, and not Mme Royal. Another reason for Socialist gloom came from M Michel Rocard, a Socialist ex-Prime Minister (under Mitterrand) who is now out to pasture. A couple of days ago he called for an alliance with M Bayrou to "stop Sarkozy" ... and was almost immediately seconded by another Socialist heavyweight, Bernard Kouchner, a former Minister of Health and founder of the Nobel Peace Prizewinning Medecins Sans Frontières organization. While some might interpret the calls as those of rats leaving the sinking Socialist ship - or even as those of modern Brutuses plunging their sharpened blades into Caeser(ine)'s back - Amerloque will be a bit more charitable. Should M Bayrou win and attempt to govern from his imaginary 'center' with some sort of 'national union', both M Rocard and M Kouchner will have placed their pawns on the centrist chessboard early enough to have a bit of later influence. (Too, the Socialists must wonder just what real chances of success Mme Royal still has when Mme Dominique Voynet, the 'Green', and M Bayrou campaign jointly in the projects, as they have done.)

Amerloque has a few more observations:

Dirty Tricks - No political campaign is ever immune from dirty tricks, and disinformation about one candidate or another has been appearing with depressing regularity. One alleged 'survey' magically appeared several days ago, just in time to be featured prominently in the news over the weekend. A story appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur (traditionally on the Left) about an so-called 'poll' conducted by the Renseignements Généraux which shows that Mme Royal won't make it into the second round. Emails supposedly emanating from various prestigious organizations (for example, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and the Centre d'Etudes de la Vie Politique Française (CEVIPOF) speak of 'secret' surveys made that 'prove' that Mme Ségolène Royal 'will be eliminated' next Sunday and that M Le Pen would supposedly come in first with 20%, followed by M Sarkozy (19%) and M Bayrou (11%).

The general feeling is that the goal of both these tricks is to encourage leftist French voters resort to the so-called 'useful vote' (vote utile), i.e., a vote for Mme Royal - and not 'waste' their precious votes on 'small' left-wing candidates such as M José Bové, Mme Dominique Voynet or Mme Arlette Laguiller. Naturally the small left wing candidates took such interpretations very, very badly indeed - after all, the opposite of 'useful' is 'useless' ! They reacted instantly, all of them stating in no uncertain terms that voters should vote for their preferred candidate and platform - and certainly not Mme Royal. It remains to be seen if the tricks bring about the desired result next week. Amerloque is also wondering any other disinformation will be revealed during the upcoming week, in a paper such as the Canard Enchainé, for example, or in Le Figaro.

Surveys - With but one week remaining before the first round, the media and pollsters would have the French believe that something like 40% or 41% of the voters are still undecided. Amerloque learned long ago that there is no Santa Claus, that there are no free lunches ('TANSTAFFL'), and that he will still have to pay for a shave tomorrow in Paris, in spite of the quaint French saying: Demain, on rase gratis! From his own travels and movements around Paris and the Paris region over the last weeks, and from his encounters in offices and over coffee machine(s) and at diners en ville, Amerloque is convinced that few voters are really undecided, deep down. Many of them have made their choice and are keeping it to themselves. Some simply seen to be fed up with polls, and won't answer any questions. Others are voting Front National and just want to spare themselves any possible personal or professional problems that might follow a declaration of support for M Le Pen, no matter how lukewarm. All the polls are to be taken with many, many grains of salt, Amerloque feels.

Background noise – Violence is never far from the surface. At a carnival in Paris - the Foire du Trone, held annually for centuries (since AD 957 !) - a policeman was killed when he attempted to stop gang members from the projects from attacking a carnival ride operator. It is not clear whether one or more gang members pushed the officer under the heavy, moving arm of a fast-moving thrill ride, or whether it really was an accident caused by a 'movement by the crowd', as the state prosecutor termed it. A 15 year old has been charged and is in jail. Down in the center of France, near Lyon, a young (23) hypermarket employee was abducted and murdered by a person described on TV by a family member as being 'on parole for sex crimes'. Her body was found six days after the fact, casually cast in a ditch by the side of a minor road. In Algiers (Algeria) and Casablanca (Morocco), fundamentalist Muslim suicide bombers allegedly linked to Al Qaeda attacked without warning, exploding their devices with an enormous loss of life in Algiers (something like 24 dead and over 200 wounded) and no loss at all (except the terrorists themselves, at this writing) in Casablanca. The event in Casa is taken far more seriously indeed here. The Quai d'Orsay (French Foreign Ministry) immediately instructed French nationals living in Morocco - or planning on traveling there - to 'exercise extreme caution' and 'avoid crowds'. Over the past fifteen years, since the beginning of the current monarch's reign, millions up on millions of euros have been invested by French citizens and companies in Morocco, from call centers to industrial assembly lines to vacation apartments. The savvy purchase and subsequent careful restoration of coveted riads, the traditional Moroccan city dwellings, have been touted as 'safe' investments on financial pages and in lifestyle magazines for several years now: prices have skyrocketed. The country has become both an excellent business partner and a fashionable retirement destination for bobos - and even for less well-off French people, especially those who are hoping to find an cheaper lifestyle than the one they have here in France. Domestic crime and events in Morocco will probably influence the vote next week, in Amerloque's view.

Will the second round in 2007 be a faceoff between Mme Royal and M Sarkozy (as the bookmakers have it) ? Will M Bayrou reach the finals ? Might there even be a runoff between M Sarkozy and M Le Pen ? By this time next week, the die will have been cast and the votes counted.

These certainly are interesting times, in France.


Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyright reserved to copyright holders, including Amerloque


<< Home