One of the guarantees of democracy is the right to convene freely. During the past few U.S. presidential elections, we've convened with neighbors on election night, watching voting returns come in on the television and via the Internet while munching on snacks, and then celebrating or commiserating together as we listened to victory and concession speeches. Last night, Allen and I had the good fortune to experience a very similar evening, but with French friends and much better food and wine, as we awaited the outcome of une élection présidentielle (a presidential election). On t.v., we watched the final moments of the most recent French presidential election cycle culminate in a victory for François Hollande, and then listened to Sarkozy's concession speech, followed by the new president's victory speech as it was televised from a small town in central France.
Notably for a Socialist Party candidate, the new president was driven in a small car to his speech site. While this choice of transportation will have to change as presidential security becomes important, it does mirror in some ways the simpler and more practical electoral process in France, as we've observed it:
- For starters, presidents are elected every five years, and the campaign cycle itself is much shorter. The presidential candidates must declare themselves by attaining 500 signatures from French mairies (mayors) and other elected officials, just a few months before the vote. Le premier tour (the first round, or the primary) occurred on April 22, two weeks ago, with the final vote yesterday (May 6) between the top two candidates, because no one got a majority the first time around. The brevity of the process is capped by the quick ascension of the new president, in just three weeks or so.
- The campaigning is strictly controlled, both during the primary period and up to the final election; each primary candidate had the same amount of airtime on television, and there were rules about the sizes, colors, and images on the campaign posters. This means there was a lot less waste and visual clutter on the streets, and fewer television commercials. Last-minute campaigning had to end on Friday, a full day before election day.
- One acrimonious presidential debate took place on national television in the last week, just one. And throughout, personal details, about the candidates' families and social lives seemed largely irrelevant. (That Hollande is unmarried and cohabits with someone is a non-issue here.)
- The stringent campaign rules and the quiet day before the election (no sign-waving on the streets!) is matched by a relatively quiet voting day, on a Sunday, rather than on a weekday, so very few people have to take the day off from work. The other major difference here is that the French directly vote their president in (no electoral college like in the U.S.); that may also account for the higher turnout as each person's vote feels more directly connected to the eventual outcome. Otherwise, the actual voting looked similar; in Aix, voting sites were located around town, at the hotel de ville (city hall), and a school, and the French voters stood in lines calmly to take their turn at the voting booth. Just outside the door it looked like pollsters were speaking with voters as they entered or exited the bureau de vote.
- The final results are guarded until the last moments of voting; we do something similar in the U.S. where official results are not announced until the west coast has finished its voting, but we do endure hours of journalists' and experts' projections of the results. In France, not a word was stated of the results until the clock struck 20h, (8 pm). At that moment, the photo here shows what we saw on the television. (I found out this morning that the news of Hollande's victory was leaked early on the Internet by a foreign press; within France though this is strictly interdict).