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British Elections Can Do with a French Connection
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By Marcel Berlins

On Sunday, for the first time in my life, I voted in the land of my birth, in a little village 5 kilometers from where I had spent my infancy.

Over the years, my French nationality had somehow been mislaid, and I only recovered it a few years ago; hence my status as a debutant voter and proud receiver of my carte electorale, stamped each time I vote.

Part of me felt uneasy, asking what right I had to meddle in the affairs of a country I've lived in for a total of only 13 years, mainly as a child, and where I still don't have my main home. That doubt was soon replaced unexpectedly by a feeling approaching emotion.

I was surprised. Yet here I was, suddenly conscious that, merely by voting, I was doing something important in, and to a country that was important to me, even if my ties with it were limited. It mattered.

It was hardly a secret ballot. In one corner of the village hall was a table with piles of white slips, each bearing the name of one of the presidential candidates. The process thereafter was pure eccentricity. The idea is that the voter picks up several of these slips, a selection of different names, and takes them into one of the curtained-off voting booths.

There, all the slips are left on a small shelf except the one bearing the name of the favored candidate, which is placed into a light blue envelope. The voter exits the private booth and places the envelope into the ballot box. In principle, no one has seen which white slip he or she has chosen.

Except that the importance of the secret ballot seems to have escaped many. I saw several voters, in full view of anyone who happened to be watching, pick up just one white slip and stuff it into the envelope, eschewing the privacy of the booth.

This shouldn't have been allowed, I was told later: the officials should have ordered them to grab lots of slips and get behind the curtain. Their failure to do so means that I now know how the guy with the moustache who's always reading l'Equipe in the local cafe, voted. I have not yet decided what use to make of this information.

Britain doesn't, of course, have elections based on the person rather than the party, but there are two aspects of the French model that would improve life here.

I was much impressed by the strict control over the public display of candidates' election posters. In the center of the village, a hoarding was carefully divided into 12, so that each candidate had exactly equal space for his or her poster. That was it.

One poster was compulsory, but also a maximum. No other publicity material is allowed in public places. So, unlike in Britain, no walls and trees are saturated with the mug shots of wannabe politicians, often to remain an eyesore for weeks after the election is over.

Moreover, the distribution of candidates' leaflets does not depend on volunteers (in Britain, I usually receive five handouts from one party, none from another). In France, all 12 leaflets came, neatly assembled, in one official envelope.

Of course a nationwide presidential election is easier to conduct than a general election with 646 constituencies. But I see no reason why the restrictions on publicity material, especially that visible to the public at large, should not work here.

(China Daily via The Guardian April 27, 2007)

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