Village Politics

2012-05-07 13:06

On Monday France woke up to a new president. Considering the Socialist Party leader, Francois Hollande, squeaked to victory with 51% to his rival Nicholas Sarkozy’s 48% it is probably fair to say that almost half of France is unhappy today.

The other half danced in the streets of Paris. But where I live in the south-west sticks, there are no streets to speak of, just little lanes almost wide enough for a tractor to pass without pushing my Peugeot into a ditch.

Anyway, after watching how people voted in my small corner of rural France, I realised why displays of public emotion on the village square would have been in bad taste. In a community with just 159 registered voters, it’s imperative to get along with your neighbours, whether you agree with them politically or not. So people round here played their voting cards close to their chests, as I found out when I went down to the mairie – the village hall – with my trusty neighbour and interlocutor of all things French, Bernard, to watch democracy in action last night.

By voting cut-off time at 6pm, a fair number of locals had crowded into the mairie beneath a portrait of then still-just President Sarkozy that was about to become more ironic than iconic.

The elderly – and there are many of them in Vieux, the village whose name means “old” – settled themselves on the dozen or so chairs in the room, comparing their aches and pains and discussing the weather, which is always a conversation clincher in an agricultural community.

Children – a surprising number of whom were brought along – went round the room greeting the grown ups by kissing them on both cheeks. French children, I find, are exceedingly polite and a few even hovered uncertainly in front of me, the stranger in the room, before deciding to give me the benefit of the doubt and kiss me too.

Those of us who still have our own teeth and knees, squeezed onto wooden benches or stood in a broad semi-circle around the table where the mayor proceeded to perform his democratic duty.

It was the job of one official – in this case the local builder – to hand the mayor each blue square envelope containing the candidate’s name. Then, slowly and deliberately, the mayor opened each envelope, took out the piece of paper bearing the candidate’s name, read it out loud and then placed it on either the “Sarkozy” or the “Hollande” pile on the table in front of him. Each envelope was then handed back to another official who made a great show of checking that each envelope was empty before putting it on another pile.

Spoiled votes – there were 13 – were stamped by the mayor with a “tampon”, the unfortunate translation of “stamp”, and placed on a third pile.

It was a very public show of transparency, and for the half hour or so that it took to tally the votes, you could have heard a croissant drop in that room.

A marble bust of Marianne – France’s lady liberty who represents the birth of the republic forged in bloody revolution, plus the long scroll of village mayors on the wall dating back to 1792, reminded me that in France, the roots of democracy are very much alive in every citizen’s mind at times like these.

In Vieux, Sarkozy beats Hollande by 3 votes. The news is greeted quietly and the meeting breaks up quickly. Most people leave straight away. A few of us hang around outside the mairie in the early evening sunshine to smoke and chat about everything except politics.

Soon, Bernard and I go to our respective homes to wait and watch the national result on TV. He and his wife, Francoise, will not breathe out until an hour later when their man Hollande emerges victorious.

Even though they live next door to me, we email each other a lot because it’s easier than phoning: my French is terrible; their English is almost non-existent. Around 9pm I receive a one-word e-mail from Bernard. “Yesssss !!”

The Rolex reign of the man the French called President Bling Bling is over. The new President of France has arrived in Tulle to make his first speech in a Renault hatchback.

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