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An Expatriate French Political Scientist Votes

Last Sunday, we went voting. My husband and I drove two and a half hours to Shanghai, parked the car in our little secret parking lot close to the French consulate and played our part in electing a new French president. We then had lunch and drove two and a half hours back to Ningbo where I am working at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC).

We spent six hours in the car to throw a little paper in a blue envelope into a box. Why? As Cees van der Eijk said earlier, this is something that a simple rational choice account of voting cannot explain. And, indeed, one of the major reasons to vote in this election was, for me at last, the satisfaction to throw one particular ballot paper into the bin.

In French presidential elections, the voter takes one ballot paper for each candidate and then puts the paper for their preferred candidate in an envelope, while throwing the others away. The envelope is cast into a transparent ballot box according to a simple but nevertheless ceremonial procedure: the voting helper reads aloud the name on the identification card (usually the voter’s card), another voting helper confirms the name and then the citizen is invited to slip the envelope through a narrow slit into the ballot box, accompanied by the voting helper repeating the name and “a voté” (has voted). The voter then signs off and leaves the office.

The particularity of this ceremony is that it celebrates – even if only for a little minute or so – the power of the citizen. The procedure allows every single citizen to be – for a  little moment – alone with the destiny of the Republic. There is only the ballot box in front of him or her, and the envelope in hand. Next to the ballot box is usually a copy of the “Code Civil”, otherwise the table is empty.

The French historian Ernest Renanonce defined the French nation a “plébiscite de tous les jours”, a daily referendum. The idea that every single citizen is directly responsible for and connected to the Republic, is a fundamental of French republicanism even though the translation of this into the act of directly electing the President is quite recent.

When Charles de Gaulle created the 5th Republic (or more precisely had it created by his loyal adjutant Michel Debré), the President was elected by an on-off assembly of local officeholders, senators and other dignitaries. With the country on the brink of a civil war due to the difficult and painful decolonization of Algeria, de Gaulle did not want to risk losing power at a whim of the population… And yet, he skillfully used direct consultation to legitimate his politics, for instance by cementing the independence of Algeria in a referendum in 1962 –the same year he thought it safe to introduce the direct election of the President… by referendum!

For the citizen, subjectively, there is something strikingly empowering in this form of direct consultation. The feeling to participate – tant soit peu – directly in politics has  again proven to be a strong motive for citizens, as evident in the strikingly high turnout of 81.03%. It is also the explanation for another French particularity: the “white” ballot paper (i.e. vote blanc) where the voter will put no ballot paper into the envelope and then still cast it into the ballot box. Although technically an invalid vote, “white” votes are counted separately as they indicate that the citizen does not contest the republican principle of the vote but only the candidates; it is a very particular form of protest vote.

More commonly, however, the antagonizing effect of the two-round majority system enhances participation and the scores of either; this was particularly the case this time with highly polarized candidates. This could be observed particularly in  regions where either candidate was extremely unpopular; in some quarters either candidate attained scores of 70% or more!


Catherine Goetze

Published inEuropean PoliticsFrance 2012

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