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Euro Unmuddle

photo: brasserie zever

Saturday night at Alésia.

Polling Station 14–55

Paris:– Monday, 14. June 2004:– The only election I ever organized was the one to choose the winner of this magazine's fabulous bumper–sticker slogan contest. I write this is to show that I'm not a big expert in this area.

But I have a feeling that my peers in the news business don't have a very clear idea of what's going on either. To them holding an election simultaneously in 25 countries with something near 350 million registered voters, with hundreds of political groups vying for office – they must think it's as easy as frying an egg.

Maybe they're thinking about the Euro football tournament. It has only required Portugal to ready a bunch of stadiums andphoto: cinema mistral put a lot of police and the army on overtime, and get ready for some wild football fans, plus a small army of the press and a contingent of Europe's usual pickpockets. Football makes zillions so if it costs billions, so what? Portugal is doing it for money as well as glory.

So I think, mobilizing 350 million civilians to go out and vote for something as abstract to most of them as the European parliament probably seems, is a big deal. Very few countries are ever called upon to stage one of these mega–elections and getting a community of countries to do it is nothing much short of a miracle.

How its done with a 30–party 'system,' without conventions, and with few voting machines, over several time zones, over a couple of days, with minimal advertising, with a campaign limited to two weeks, hardly any TV coverage – and then the final results are available two hours after polls close. None of it is your usual Euro–muddle.

The Euro Campaign

The final date for the registration of candidates for the European elections was on Friday, 28. May. This was followed by a weekend of peace before the 'official' campaign was to begin on Monday, 31. May. In its edition on Friday, Le Parisien noted the deadline for candidates. After the weekend, Monday's edition had no news at all about the elections.

Friday's coverage was on page six, and briefly summed up how many candidates there were to be elected. Mention was also made of the six new voting districts but there was no map for voter orientation, no details at all about this new feature. The paper also mentioned that there would be a lot of new parties nobody had ever heard of before. In all, the paper said there would be about 160 lists of candidates, running in France's six new regions.

The French broadcast authority sets aside TV–airtime for the political parties, but with some slight favor given to parties that are already represented in the national parliament. These political ads began on Monday, 31. May, following the evening news on the state channels.

It does not seem to be a 'rule,' but it seemed as if the parties were given a generic film crew, that exclusively produced low–grade political commercials with poor video, poor sound, no graphics and horrible music. These rolled on night after night, and by the end of the campaign they even included plugs by marginal anti–European parties and hopeful royalists. The best clips were terrible and the worst ones were like ads heralding not voting.

Meanwhile, somewhat out of sight, the major political parties held a few public meetings around France, usually for the already converted. One minuscule party with a TV–ad, asked its potential supporters to print the ballot from their Web site because they couldn't afford to print it themselves.

Another 'rule' says the state will pick up some of the tab for a campaign if the party polls three percent or more. This is encouraging and resulted in there being 28 party lists for Paris voters to consider.

There is a political class in France. Regardless of background people who will be politicians start their learning process at the pre–kindergarten stage. By the time they are wearing long pants and dresses they can talk by the kilometre. This fills up a lot time that the 'public information' shows on radio and TV occupy. The only politician who wastes this time is Jean–Marie Le Pen. He uses it to denounce the 'unfair' electoral rules.

During the campaign, the heavy hitters from the Socialist and UMP parties had one main argument. The Socialistsphoto: chope daguerre said that the vote would be one 'against' the government, like the outcome in recent regional elections. Everybody who spoke for the majority UMP said that it would be no such thing.

But for its TV–ads, the Socialists hammered away at their 'Europe sociale' idea – which suggested that Europe wouldn't be 'sociale' at all if the 'liberals' won. In French–speak, 'liberals' are true–blue conservatives. Meanwhile the UMPs did what they could to avoid losing badly. They said they had 'clear convictions.'

The centre–liberal party, UDF, concentrated on saying that France 'needs' Europe. This makes sense because this party's stiffest opponent is its nominal ally, the UMP, which is trying to destroy the UMP leader, François Bayrou. He keeps on refusing to roll over and play dead.

The only party to run a pan–European campaign were the greens, or 'Les Verts.' Daniel Cohn–Bendit, not a candidate, campaigned non–stop from Ireland to Estonia and from Malta to Finland.

In France there are seven parties covering the spectrum from extreme– right to extreme–left, and holding positions on either side of the centre. For the European elections the traditional parties were joined by 21 other 'lists' of candidates; These included the Democratic Espéranto party, the Euro–Palestine party, and anti–European parties.

The official campaign ended on Friday, 11. June – after two weeks of fairly complete confusion. If there were European issues that voters should have been aware of, they remained a mystery.

Euro Results

How many voted in 25 European countries is not an easy number to find. How many were eligible to vote is another mystery even if the figure of 'nearly 350 million' appears here and there. As in France, the abstention rate is as prominent as if somebody voted for it. Exceptions were Belgium and Luxembourg where voting is mandatory, and both countries had abstention rates of less than 10 percent.

With the addition on ten new countries to the European Union a few weeks ago, as of this election the number of seats up for grabs has been reduced from 788 to 732.

It appears as if right–wing parties have retained the slight majority they had in the last Euro parliament. There is an undefined group called 'autres' with 69 seats, placed on the right's side of the half–circle, which the right shares with the 'sovereignists' and the 'Euro–skeptics.'

Less than half of other side of half–circle is composed by ultra–leftists, Socialists, Greens, and 'Liberals,' which may be the traditional ones. Without the ultra–leftists,photo: euro election posters the Socialists have 319 seats when combined with the Greens and the Liberals. Without the 'autres,' the right– wing has 318 seats, but the main body of the right–wing has 272 seats.

The graphic part of the election campaign.

Apparently this doesn't mean a lot because everything in Strasbourg is negotiable and this is what everybody does in any combination necessary. All the same, you have to give the whole ball of wax credit for being democratic because of the small parties that are hostile to the very parliament that their deputies sit in.

The various European institutions have formidable means of making themselves known, but national politicians and news organs manage to keep the lid on. While the deputies are in Strasbourg, the management sits in Brussels, and the confusion about who does what where, plays into national hands.

Making pan–European regulations is an incredibly dull business, until 'they' try to force camembert makers to use pasteurized milk. Then it is 'Brussels' that is trying to wreck a hallowed French custom. But if Brittany's citizens want the language taught in local schools, then they have to go over Paris' head to Brussels – which supports regionalism.

So there is a Jekyll and Hyde relationship between the European Union and its citizenry as well as jittery relations between Brussels and national governments. Governments have the upper hand because they're more aware of the game and how it's played, but sometimes citizens can play off their governors against the Eurocrats.

It is possible that governments would rather that their citizens remain in the dark – 60 percent of all new laws and regulations affecting everyday life are now decided by the European Union. The 78 new French deputies in Strasbourg might be more influential in the long run than the 500–odd deputies in the National Assembly.

Paris Euro Results

Until Saturday I had no idea that all of France and its offshore departments and territories had been reduced to six electoral districts. Luckily one of them has turned out to be the Ile–de–France. It is the only intact region that is also a voting district.

All of the others are 'super' districts. Le Parisien sniffs at the absurd thought of putting Bordeaux together with Montpellier, or Corsica with Grenoble – but then Corsica isn't considered to be an offshore territory.

With 42.8 percent of registered voters casting ballots, the Socialists won 31 seats in the European parliament. They increased their 1999 score by nine seats, and they increased their share of the popular vote by almost eight percent, to arrive at 29.5 percent on Sunday.

Even though the result was supposed to be 'sanction' leveled at the UMP party, it too increased its share enough to elect 17 deputies. It not only didn't halt the advance of the Socialists, but it failed utterly to destroy its nominal ally, François Bayrou's UDF party. This one swooped up 12 percent of the vote allowing it 11 seats, two more than in 1999. Two other right–wing but anti–European parties siphoned off some votes from the UMP, grabbing a total of three seats.

The Communists and Les Verts saw their scores dwindle, with the former dropping from six seats to two and the latter from nine seats to six. The extreme–left slipped far under the five percent barrier, and obtained no seats. Europe–wide, Les Verts did less than they expected to.

Jean–Marie Le Pen used most of his breath during the short campaign complaining about how the electoral rules were rigged against the Front National. This party captured 9.8 percent of the vote, good for seven seats, one reserved for Marine Le Pen.

Euro Non–Voters

The first result to be announced, sometimes before polls closed on Sunday, were the numbers of people who abstained. Given the campaign that we had, not going to the polls was no surprise. Slovakia won this with 20 percent of registered voters casting ballots and was closely followed by Poland where 21.2 percent went to the polls.

At the other end, new community members Malta with 82.4 percent of voters at the polling stations and Cyprus with 71.2 percent going to the polls led all but Italy, where 73.5 percent of registered voters turned out to be mostly against Silvio Berlousconi.

The French press gives the opposite figures, choosing to dwell on how many didn't vote rather than how many did. In France 59.9 or 57.2 percent of registered voters did not bother with the polls, 3.3 percent cast blank ballots, and 17,169,034 cast valid ballots.

Polling Station 14–55

In mild weather early Sunday afternoon my polling station was a ten minute slow walk from where I live. There was one person outside who may have been its security, but was probably just getting some air after watching not many people not voting much.

I presented my voting card and was told that my station was further along in the room in the gloomy municipal building. A–5–sized sheets of paper had been printed by the political groups and were lying in piles on long tables. There were 28 of these 'lists' in all.

At the right station my card was compared to my Carte de Sejour and to the master list. I was given a tiny blue envelopephoto: sundown, rue daguerre and directed to the polling booths, which were like seaside changing tents. I should have picked up one of each of the 28 'ballots' and discarded 27 of them in the booth, but I chose only the one I wanted to avoid confusion. There was a sign saying nothing should be written on the ballot.

Without bothering to close the curtains, I stuffed the lone ballot into the envelope. It was a tight fit. Then I returned to the table with the clear plexi ballot box. After another check to make sure I was still who I was, I was allowed to tip the envelope into the ballot box, which was far from half–full. Then I needed to remind the officials that they should stamp my voter card.

The whole thing took four minutes or less. One voter came out when I went in and another came in while I was leaving. For photo purposes I went to another polling station where I've voted in the past, and got a shot of the 28 advertising panels. It was no bother not photographing any voters.

Later, watching the early results on TV, I was happy to see that my guy and his 'list' won. He and his 'list' got 684,993 votes. It was worth going to vote even if I didn't get invited to the victory party.

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