As a person who stays up-to-date on news – and has lived through many, many elections at home in North America – I was intrigued by the prospect of being in France for Round 1 of the French presidential election on Sunday, 22 April, 2012. On the eve of the second and final round on Sunday, May 6, 2012, I wanted to collect my thoughts on the matter before it’s over and those thoughts are irrelevant.
Summary: It was … different … than elections in Canada and the United States, and not in a bad way.
Item #1: France is a republic
France is a republic, and just about anyone – ANYONE – can run for president in the first round if they get the signatures of 500 elected officials, at any level from village mayor to member of European parliament. (Thanks Wikipedia!) Like a lot of places that aren’t North America, election day is on Sunday and it’s not a big deal. In fact, voting on Sunday morning seemed to just be a part of some folks’ easy-like-Sunday-morning routine.
There were ten candidates in the first round. As far as I could tell, they organized themselves rather nicely on the political spectrum from left to right. In the days leading up to the vote, a good chunk of evening television was devoted to broadcasting speeches by the candidates. Those speeches were much longer than my North American attention span, not to mention overly dramatic. According to every presidential candidate who wasn’t Sarkozy, everything is awful in France. I can think of far worse places in the world, but I’m not about to get into a philosophical argument with a French person.
As a pop culture enthusiast, having political speeches dominate nightly television meant I only discovered an amazing French hybrid of The Bachelorette and Average Joe – La Belle et ses princes presque charmants (Beauty and her Almost-charming Princes) – on Saturday, once French media was in an election blackout.
Item #2: Media
Arriving in Paris toward the end of the campaign, media coverage had reached the French equivalent of “frenzy.” The Canadian equivalent of French media frenzy is the amount of coverage a suspected election may get six months before it happens. The American equivalent n’existe pas.
For my own edification, I read the freebie papers: Metro, 20 Minutes, Direct Matin to get different 200-word summaries of the previous day’s events. Getting the news in this form was ideal for my short-term visitor situation. In short, things weren’t looking great for Sarkozy, and Hollande, the presumptive gagneur, had put together an appealing list of voter-friendly promises. Nobody seemed to care about the cost or long-term implications of any platform promises.
Item #3: Advertising
Sweet mother of pearl, what a difference! I didn’t see any television advertising, and posters and signs were largely limited to sanctioned areas, comme ça:
As far as I could tell, each party only managed to produce one poster with their candidate’s picture (with fourth-place finisher and overall surprise Mélenchon the possible exception, he had three). Almost every one on the sanctioned boards were vandalized in some way or another. Very artfully, I must add. There were a few random non-residential spots which were heavily plastered, but they were definitely the exception. No one really has a lawn, so there aren’t any lawn signs, nor did there seem to be any in windows or anywhere specifically residential. Summary: in no way did the election impede my ability to take pictures of beautiful things in Paris.
Note: Regarding the candidate on Panet #1, Eva Joly’s lime green glasses were not the result of vandals. They were very real.
There did seem to be some culture jamming-type awareness-raising. The best example is this amazing lucha libre electoral throwdown poster. If I had more wall space and had been under the cover of darkness when I saw it, I would have tried harder to steal it.
Item #4: Voting
Registered voters get cards in the mail, but if you’re walking down the street and immediately struck by the urge to find out where to vote, check the helpful neighbourhood poster. I bet signage like this preempts some, ahem, notification issues about where one is supposed to vote.
On Round 1 voting day, I visited the bird market and, after birds, the election was the #1 topic of conversation. Celebrating the exercise of one’s franchise by buying a bird has immense potential to become A Thing. Your new feathered friend could literally tweet in celebration of democracy. Unlike the French, who could not (keep reading, that sentence will make sense).
Item #5: Results
France has election result broadcasting rules similar to the ones in Canada during the last federal election, summarized as “Don’t talk about it on the internet because we said so.” This was a minor controversy unto itself, since Sarkozy acknowledged the law was absurd in light of the information age and Hollande responded by saying changing the law would ruin French society. In fairness, this seems to be the default response to everything. It is very dramatic and I think I love it.
Since there’s only one time zone in France, the results arrive in a torrent, followed by four hours of dissecting them in constantly-changing panels on television. I flipped around the channels for a while, settling on BBC World, who had helpfully set up their broadcast centre in front of Eiffel Tower. Clearly, this was to help the rest of the world understand they were in France, in case the “French presidential election” crawl was not sufficient information.
I wandered around Montmartre during this time, and there was little to no activity suggesting anything remarkable had just happened. However, off in the distance, I could hear singing, possibly by some happy Socialists. Or, drunk tourists.
Item #6: Turnout
Presented without comment: Round 1 turnout was a “disappointing” 80%.
Honestly, the tone and constant presence of electioneering in North America makes it less of a fun spectator sport than in the past. The French may disagree, but I’ll take one of their “bothersome” campaigns that results in possible bird ownership over the never-ending American one any day.