Sunday, 23 March 2014

How My Boyfriend's Dog Garnered Votes in the Municipal Elections

Early this afternoon, Understanding Frenchman and I went to exercise our democratic rights and fulfil our civic duties at the local polling station. (Like so many things in France, voting is best carried out at lunch time because everyone else is eating so you don't have to queue.) The procedure is pretty simple, although slightly different from in the UK. You show your voting card and collect slips of paper with the lists of candidates for each of the parties, along with a little blue envelope. Then you go into the isoloir and put one of the slips into the envelope. You can either keep the rest or throw them away. Then you take your envelope to another desk, where there are two officials. One looks at your ID, checks that you are on the list and are eligible to vote, then states "Peut voter." Then you post your envelope into the urn and the second official announces, "a voté." (My name was on a separate list of EU voters, so they had to look me up twice.) You then sign the register and that's you done.

Until the next week, of course. As in the presidential elections, there are two rounds, unless one party gains at least 50% of the vote in the first round. The first round eliminates parties which don't gain a high enough percentage of the vote, while the second determines the proportion of councillors from each list that will make up the municipal council. If you choose to voter blanc by putting nothing in the envelope, your vote counts towards the total number of votes used to calculate the percentage in the first round but has no effect in the second round. Parties which don't gain enough votes also have the option of forming a kind of coalition with another party, handing over their percentage of the vote in return for places on its list.

As if that wasn't complicated enough, the rules are different in communes which have less than 1000 inhabitants. In those places, independent candidates can stand for election, and the list does not have to include as many candidates as there are seats on the council. What's more, voters are allowed to cross out the names of candidates on one list and replace them with the names of candidates on another list, even if their policies are totally different and they are not in any kind of political alliance. This process is called panachage and is supposed to make it possible to have an opposition in elections where the number of voters is so small as to make this statistically unlikely.

And what about my boyfriend's dog? Well, in the past, in those small communes, you were allowed to replace the names of official candidates with people who hadn't even stood for election. When Understanding Frenchman was little, his dad was president and the family dog something of a mascot for the village football club. Some jokers, who were obviously not that impressed with the candidates on offer, chose to score out the human names and replace them with Toto's.

Sadly, the dog is no more and the law changed this year so that le panachage is restricted to people whe have actually put themselves forward for election, so we'll just have to hope that our human representatives are capable of wiser choices than our canine companions this time round.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Chocolate and Chick-lit

One evening last week, on my way home from work, I popped into one of my favourite Parisian chocolate shops and explained that I was looking for a little selection of classic chocolates as a small present for someone I knew. It was sort of true, but in fact, the recipient of the gift was someone I know better than anybody else: I was buying a box of beautifully presented chocolates for myself.

The cause of this ridiculous indulgence was a book that my mum gave me for Christmas: Jenny Colgan's The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris. With its violet and gold cover, this book is quite clearly marketed as chick-lit, and to be honest, my expectations of the story weren't all that high. I read the first few chapters slowly, a few pages at a time in that brain-dead period between work and sleep.

And then, a few chapters in, I found myself getting hooked. The story, the tale of a provincial English girl who moves to Paris and falls in love with a chocolate maker, could have been saccharine-sweet and stomach-turningly cliched. And indeed, the stereotypes are there. Anna, the main character, lives in an apartment on the Ile-Saint-Louis with a bohemian flatmate and every man she meets behaves like a typical Latin lothario in one way or another. But the cliches are tempered, both by the tragic part of the story, another main character who is dying of cancer, and with touches of irony, my favourite being the character of the chic, haughty Alice, who is rude to everyone ... and also British and not parisienne at all. Reading The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris became my perfect weekday treat and even made me appreciate Paris a bit more as I roared underneath it on the RER, engorssed in the pages of the book.

Highly recommended if you are looking for a little treat, for yourself or somebody else. Just don't forget to buy some chocolates too!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Card from the Town Hall

Since I wrote back in December about how surprisingly pleasant the process of applying to be on the electoral register was, I've been metaphorically touching wood every time the subject of this month's local elections comes up and hoping desperately that I didn't speak too soon.

Well, to my relief, at the end of last week, this is what arrived in the post:

Now I have the card in my sticky paws, I can let myself get excited about voting in my first ever French election!

The first vote, on the 23rd March, is for the conseil municipal, or local council and the local mayor. In Paris, each arrondissement has its own council and mayor, and the outcome of those elections will also determine who gets to be mayor of Paris as a whole. As the municipal councillors also play a role in selecting senators for France's upper house, the consequences are quite far-reaching.

One of the slightly crazy things about French politics is the number of communes which exist, each with its own mayor. While the outer arrondissements of Paris have populations of one or two hundred thousand, the smallest commune in the country, Rochefourchat, has only one permanent inhabitant, and none of its politicians lives there. This is one of the many things that people periodically talk about reforming, but there are too many conflicting interests, so the only way the number of communes is ever reduced is when the last inhabitant of one of the tiny ones leaves or dies and it becomes a village mort.

The battle for the position of the next mayor is also turning out to be quite interesting. Despite all the recent furore of the manif pour tous (the recent loud protest against the passing of gay marriage and adoption law), and some very unpleasant demonstrations of extreme right-wing sentiment, Paris has been fairly happily presided over by Bertrand Delanoe, a gay socialist whose innovations include the Vélibs, Paris Plages, and the Nuits Blanches, since 2001.

This time round, however, the contest is between two women, the socialist Anne Hidalgo and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet ("NKM") of the UMP. Hidalgo has the advantage of representing the party which is already in power and has remained reasonably popular throughout Delanoe's two terms, while Kosciusko-Morizet has been criticized for being too left-wing for the right and too right-wing for the left, but I have the impression she's been more interviewed and more talked-about than Hidalgo (although perhaps not always in the most positive way!).

The Guardian printed an article recently about why Parisians are not terribly inspired about voting for their next mayor (basically, most people want good public transport, affordable housing and quality childcare, and both candidates are promising all of these things), but I personally am enjoying the build up. And, if I'm honest, I'm also excited about going into that little cubicle and choosing which paper to put in the envelope. It feels a bit like being 18 again!

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Spirit of New York?

One characteristic that's pretty typical of American visitors to Europe is that they are generally amazed by how old things are, so it's hardly surprising that Understanding Frenchman and I, on our first visit to the USA, were struck by the young-ness of nearly everything that we saw. At first we felt it as an absence: if you can't wander the medieval centre, admire the Gothic churches, discover some Roman ruins and even stumble upon the odd prehistoric dolmen, what, as a tourist, are you supposed to do? And if the fun of travel lies in blending in with the local culture, how do you do you integrate when the striking feature is that everyone is so different? By the end though, I felt that it was one of the most interesting things we experienced in New York.

One of the most interesting places that we visited was definitely the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which is in Harlem, near the north-west corner of Central Park. From the outside, it doesn't look that different to many European Gothic cathedrals - a prime example of how settlers in America often exported both works of art and artistic and architectural styles, as the cornerstone of the cathedral was only laid in 1892. Enter the building, though, and you will discover unique features that mark it as being of its own place and time and not just a pastiche of another era on another continent.


One part that I really liked was the 8 Chapels of the Tongues, each devoted to a different immigrant group from the 19th and early 20th centuries and a symbol of New York's diverse population. (It's also interesting to note, however, that Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain all get their own chapel, while the Scandinavian countries are together and Eastern Europe shares with Asia.)

One of the Chapels of the Tongues
In other ways, the Cathedral demonstrates a much more modern outlook than it's European counterparts. Hanging in the nave when we arrived was this beautiful light sculpture, created by a Chinese artist. There are 14 bays honouring professions, including a stained glass window showing a 1925 television to represent communications, and a sculpture made from the remains of burned buildings is a memorial to all firefighters dating from 1976. Another sculpture, this time in bronze panels, shows scenes of environmental destruction, while the altar is consecrated to world peace.

The Chinese Sculpture
In its mission too, the Cathedral shows itself to be forward-thinking and open-minded, claiming to be "nourished by the ideas and liturgies of other faiths." It calls on artists, writers, musicians and philosphers to "help educate our imaginations", and holds services blessing cyclists, and especially bike messengers, and animals. (Camels and bumble bees can attend as well as cats and dogs.)

Signs of a modern-day sense of humour?
I'm not pretending to make any judgement on the relative values of any cathedrals' works, or to criticise or praise either St John the Divine or any other church, but it did give me a great insight into what might possibly be the most fascinating and powerful aspect of New York's (America's?) culture - the opportunity and the willingness to draw on a huge range of cultures and traditions and to take the best of them to create something that from the outside might look like its ancestors, but on the inside is really very different.