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
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
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
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
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
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)