In a discussion with Neil Spoonley, the Maire of Beyssenac in Corrèze, Francis Comby, explains why expats should register on the local electoral roll before 31st December this year
Neil Spoonley: It is probably true that few expats who have the right to vote in France have bothered to register.
Francis Comby: From our own experience in Beyssenac that would certainly be true, but I think that many of them do not realise they have the right. To me this is sad, as compared with Britain, the vote for the Council is taken very seriously by local people, and typically 80% of registered voters will participate.
NS: Surely as long as you are an owner, and live here, you have the right?
FC: That is true, but ownership is not the only determinant. Non-French voters must hold an EU Passport, and either own a property and have frequent and regular visits to the commune, or spend more than six months per year resident in the commune. For Beyssenac the principal non–French come from Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.
NS: So as long as they fulfil one of these two conditions, they can register?
FC: That is correct. They must register before 31st December of the year in order to vote in the following year. But being able to vote is not the only reason for registering. The act of registration, whether you vote or not, places you on the commune electoral roll (liste électorale) for non-French EU voters, and you will be given a carte électorale or carte d’électeur. It is a demonstration of your commitment to the commune. Others in the commune can see the list and welcome that commitment.
NS: But what happens if you fulfil the conditions, and wish to vote, but are unlikely to be in France before 31st December? Can you register other than by a visit to the Mairie?
FC: Of course. You can contact the Mairie for the form and return it by post, together with a copy of the relevant pages of your passport and proof that you fulfil one of the conditions above.
NS: It would seem that 2014 could be an important year for all voters.
FC: Certainly. It is the first time in six years that there will be an election for the local Council (conseil municipal) and for the EU Parliament. Actually registered expats can only vote in these two elections, both taking place in 2014; at the end of March (local Council) and in May (EU Parliament).
NS: I understand that the voting procedure has changed since the last election. Is that true?
FC: For smaller communes of less than 1,000 inhabitants, the procedure has not changed, but for larger communes voters will choose a whole Council from complete lists. Beyssenac is small so we keep the old procedure and voters choose the members of the Council, who will subsequently choose the Mayor.
NS: Many expats will have difficulty in understanding the system, and may know very few in the commune, so is it that important for expats to vote?
FC: I think so, but I do recognise that many find it difficult. Here in France the local Council take many decisions that affect daily life including that of expats: i.e. processing planning applications; registering births, marriages, and deaths; rental of facilities; road repairs, support when there are accidents or storms; maintenance of council buildings; fundraising for projects; etc. The Mairie also offers a wide variety of services to help all individual members of the commune. It is the best place to go when you have a problem.
NS: I think it is true that votes are cast for individuals, not for a political party, and so generally voters do not know the candidates’ political leanings.
FC: That is true – in most communes the leanings of the Mayor tend to be known but are not important in smaller communes!
NS: What is the actual voting procedure in a small commune?
FC: You go to the Mairie with your carte d’électeur which you will have received on registration and your right to vote will be checked by the presiding officials. You will then be given a plain envelope and you will be asked to sign the voting register.
NS: But what happens if I cannot attend? Can I vote by post?
FC: No. That is not available, but you can vote by appointing someone else to vote on your behalf, i.e. by proxy (procuration). This is done by a meeting with a gendarmerie or a commissariat de police in France. You need to give the name and birth date of somebody who is registered on the same voting register in your commune and they will be able to vote in your place. Your request will be sent to your local Mairie who will register the procuration.
NS: And then on election day?
FC: Normally electors are presented at the Mairie with one or more pieces of paper listing the candidates, with the total in each list being not more than the number of permitted Council members for that commune (for Beyssenac, that is 11). Generally people will vote for a whole list, but if you do not want some of the people on the list you can strike them out and add other names from other lists, if you so wish. You can also add nobody and vote for less than the permitted members. You can top it up with another list if you wish but you cannot vote for more than the permitted total number. You place your chosen candidates’ names in the plain envelope, and put it into an urn in the Mairie, in front of the presiding officials.
NS: This system must make counting rather complicated!
FC: It does, but it works. The votes are all counted under an appointed local Président de bureau de vote (often the current Mayor) and his/her assistants. Other help is given in opening the envelopes and checking that no mistakes have been made with the vote. All this is done in public view, and each vote is normally read out by the Président, with the scrutineers checking all the votes. It is true democracy in action. When all votes are counted, the leading candidates (up to the permitted limit) become the new Council. To become elected during the first round (tour) they need to have more than 50% of the votes. For the second round, the leaders of the result become elected, to bring the Council up to its full complement. The new Council must meet within the next seven days to appoint the new Mayor and the Deputy Mayors (maires-adjoints). It is not always the case that the Mayor is the person who comes out top of the voting, but it is normally so.
NS: You said that for larger communes the process will be different.
FC: Yes that is true. There, all lists will have the full complement of candidates, and the voter will simply chose one or other list. If there are several lists, there is a form of proportional counting. For the first round (tour), if one list has more than 50% of the votes, half of the permitted members are taken from this list. The remaining half is appointed from all the lists in proportion to the votes received by each list. There is a second round if no list reaches 50% of votes in the first tour. The leading name of the majority list will generally become the new Mayor.
NS: One last word?
FC: Please register to vote. It costs nothing but it is worth a lot in supporting your community (commune). Your registration will always be valued by the French.