On March 4th, I went to accomplish my duty as a new Canadian citizen: I voted for the first time in Canada, in the provincial bylection in Ottawa West-Nepean.I drove to the polling station slightly honored I could now vote. I know, I’m weird.
I wasn’t on the voters list (probably because I became a citizen not long ago) but that was taken cared of in a matter of minutes. I only had to show a piece of I.D, a proof of my address and fill up a form. I was then given a ballot. It had the name of all the four candidates for this election, as well as their political affiliation. I went behind the voting screen and marked in one of the circles to make my choice. In the ballot box… and done!
By comparison, voting in France is more ceremonious. First, you can’t miss upcoming elections: campaigns are national events and they can last for months. Second, French are really into politics and there is a strong emphasis on the fact that voting is both a civic right and a duty.
I received my carte d’électeur when I turned 18 and I couldn’t wait to use it. I got my first chance during the infamous presidential elections of April 21st, 2002.
In France, elections are always held on a Sunday: nobody works so there is no excuse to skip the duty. Voting is quite a ceremonial: first, the voter picks up the bulletins de vote at the entrance of the voting office. Each party (and there are over ten of them!) is represented by a voting paper. You must pick at least two to keep your ballot secret. Then, you enter an isolation booth and you put the appropriate bulletin in the envelop. You may not write anything on it, otherwise it is void. Three people attend the ballot box: one check your ID and your voter registration card, another one open the ballot box and the third one have you sign the voter’s list and stamp your registration card. It is custom to say a loud “a voté” (“your ballot has been cast”) when you put your ballot in the box to show you have accomplished your civic duty.
There are a lot of parties but only two really have a chance to get elected to major positions: the Union pour un movement populaire (right-wing) and the Socialist Party (left-wing). Presidential elections have two rounds: a first round and a runoff. People traditionally vote for the party they like best during the first round and everybody expect the second ballot to be between the two biggest parties. So you can vote for the Revolutionary Communist League (!) or any other minor party for the first ballot and then for a mainstream party in the runoff.
By law, voting offices close at 8pm and no electoral publication and broadcasts can be made before that time. At 8pm on the dot, the results are broadcast live on all major channels. Like I said, it’s usually between the Socialist Party and the UMP, so no big deal.
Except this time, things didn’t go as planned.
Unexpectedly, the Socialist Party had been voted off. The runner-off was the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far-right wing candidate. Le Pen had been in politics for 40 years but he rarely got more than 10%. His views on immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, Europe, not to mention his Holocaust denial and his alleged use of torture during the Algerian war made him a sick choice for president.
At 8:05pm, France was in shock. Not just left-wing voters, everyone. Spontaneous street protests began in the night from the 21st of April to the 22nd. I was there, along with over a millions of French citizens who felt something had gone horribly wrong.
Between voting for a fascist (Le Pen) and voting for a president nobody really wanted anymore (Jacques Chirac), the choice was easy. Yet, it was a painful one. Chirac was suspect in a corruption scandal, but Le Pen was accused of racism and antisemitism. And one of them was going to be President. Sick at heart, the Socialist Prime Minister at the time called all left-wing voters to vote for Chirac to defeat the fascist: “Vote for the Crook, not the Fascist”, was the motto. Eventually, during the second round of the election, Chirac defeated Le Pen by a landslide.
So yeah, Canadian politics are much less dramatic. There are not big far-left or far-right parties and people seem quite content, no matter who wins, as long as it’s fair. Nonetheless, the 2002 French Presidential election taught me something. Voting matters. Because otherwise, one day, there is always a chance to end up with the bad guy. It happened before in Europe and it could happen here. So I’ll keep on taking my civic duty and right seriously.