On March 4, I accomplished my duty as a new Canadian citizen—I voted for the first time in Canada, in the provincial by-election in Ottawa West-Nepean.
I drove to the polling station slightly honoured I could vote. I know I’m weird.
I wasn’t on the voters’ list (probably because I became a citizen not long ago) but this was taken care of in a matter of minutes. I only had to show a piece of ID, a proof of my address and fill up a form. I was then given a ballot with the names of all four candidates for this election, as well as their political affiliations. 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 months. Second, French people 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 21, 2002.
In France, elections are always held on a Sunday: nobody works so there is no excuse to skip the duty. Voting is quite ceremonious—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 envelope. You may not write anything on it, otherwise, it’s void. Three people attend the ballot box—one checks your ID and your voter registration card, another one opens the ballot box and the third one makes 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 many, many 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 expects 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 8 p.m. and no electoral publication and broadcasts can be made before that time. At 8 p.m. on the dot, the results are broadcast live on all major channels. As 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, and 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 8:05 p.m., France was in shock. Not just left-wing voters, everyone. Spontaneous street protests began in the night on April 21. I was there, along with over a million 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 involved 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 no 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 rights seriously.Share this article!