Sunday, 22 April 2007

First Turn of the French Presidential Elections

Official logo of the French Republic

While London is running and the English are getting ready to celebrate St George's Day; accross the Channel, a different type of patriotic festival is taking place. Today sees the first turn of the presidential elections in France. From 8am this morning until 8pm tonight, polling stations across the country will welcome people and invite them to decide which two candidates will run for the second turn of the election, in two weeks time.

Contrary to the UK, French elections always take place on Sundays. This may be a way to remind the Catholic Church that the business of the Republique is at least as important as that of god. More likely it is a way to incite people to go and vote without having to miss time at work or letting other engagements get in the way. I am not certain how things happen in towns and cities but in the small village where I was raised, election day is traditionally a family business. I don't think it is that different for the rest of the country. Each familly unit comes to together for the occasion. A special meal is organised and everyone goes and vote, en famille.

As stipulated by the Law, the campaign officially stopped on Friday, to give the voters the respite, quiet and reflection of a full day without electoral message. Similarly no new opinion poll could be published yesterday. The last one reported that a third of the voters still had not made up their minds.

There are twelve candidates this year, although I understand that there were quite a few more originally. The others probably did not manage to get the 500 signatures of mayors required to be allowed to stand. Of those, there are three I have never heard of: Olivier Besancenot (far left), Frédéric Nihous (the Countryside Alliance goes political. His party is called Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Tradition), Gérard Schivardi (far left: candidates of some mayors and the Workers Party). Then come more familiar names: José Bové made himself famous globally a few years back as an anti-globalisation activist,
Marie-George Buffet (communist) is a former minister for sports, Philippe de Villiers (UKIP with a Catholic and aristocratic twist) and Dominique Voynet (Green). The last two have taken part in this election before.

The leaders of the pack are in ascending order of favour (according to the polls): Jean-Marie Le Pen (far right), François Bayrou (center right, Christian democrat), Ségolène Royal (socialist) and Nicolas Sarkozy (right).

Last but by no mean least: Arlette Laguiller (Trotskist). In 1974, the year I was born, she became the first woman to stand at the presidential election in France. She has been standing every time since and now holds the record of candidatures at this election (6 to her name. She declared in 2005 that this one would probably be her last). Her communist credentials are slightly marred by the fact that she spent all her working life employed by a bank (she is now retired) but her name itself is a caricature of a French working class name. Where other candidates will call the electors "concitoyens" (fellow citizens), she calls them "travailleurs, travailleuses" (workers - male and female). She never managed to get over 6% of the votes but no presidential election would be quite complete without her taking part. A bit like the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in the UK.

During the last elections, in 2002, Jacques Chirac was elected with a score that would have made the president of a banana republic proud. This was in reaction to the fact that electors from the left failed to mobilised and vote during the first turn and Jean-Maire Le Pen got through to the second turn.

This time round, there seems to be a record number of young people of immigrant origin registered on the electoral lists this time round. This, of course, follows the riots that took place about 18 months ago. A collective called ACLEFEU (sounds like Assez le Feu: Enough with the Fire) was create to incite those youths to register and vote, with some success apparently. This will probably help prevent Le Pen's reappearance in the second turn. There is however concern that François Bayrou might undermine sufficiently the appeal of the traditional right and left mainstream parties (represented by "Sarko" and "Ségo" as they are known) and split the votes sufficiently to give Le Pen's score more importance in the results.

Whatever the result of this round, French television viewers can expect to know who the two contenders are for the second turn at 8pm tonight, as soon as journalists are allowed to divulge their estimates once the polling stations have closed. The final, official results should be known by tomorrow.

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