While France figures out how to hold safe elections in the middle of a public health crisis, the U.S. experience with massive mail-in voter turn out holds lessons for the country’s political class — they just can’t agree what they are.
Postal voting was banned in France in 1975 because of fears about voter fraud but the record turnout in the U.S. general election has reignited the debate around voting by mail. But even among President Emmanuel Macron’s own party, there are different views on whether expanding electoral participation via postal ballots is a good idea.
The government is already proposing to push back its regional and departmental elections from March to June 2021 as it seeks to avoid a repeat of this year’s disrupted municipal elections. Back in June, centrist party Modem, allies of President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM, proposed a law to introduce mail-in voting to facilitate voting during the public health crisis caused by coronavirus.
The U.S. election was just what they needed to catapult the topic into the mainstream, but government ministers remain skeptical.
“Allow me to believe — without any judgement over the American polling … that the French electoral system works well,” said Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, whose responsibilities include organizing elections, to the National Assembly on November 10. For Darmanin, voting booths are the guarantee that no other person can “weigh on the voter’s choice — a husband on his wife or inversely, a parent on their child, etc.”
France allows voting by proxy, which poses similar risks of pressure from relatives. It also allows mail-in voting in very limited circumstances — notably during legislative and consular elections for French citizens abroad. But in this case there is a relatively high level of rejected ballots (20 to 25 percent) suggesting voters are not always sure how to mark their ballot correctly.
Unlike in America though, there is no clear political fault line over postal voting, and most opposition parties have no agreed-upon position. Among the center-right Les Réublicains, for instance, Île-de-France President Valérie Pécresse is “totally hostile” to mail-in voting, while Senate President Gérard Larcher says it should be “worked on.”
Marine Le Pen, who leads the far-right National Rally, the only French party that has not yet recognized Joe Biden’s victory, is implacably opposed to mail-in votes though. She tweeted last week that the 1975 ban should remain because the ease with which electoral fraud can be perpetrated is “well known.”
Darmanin reiterated his own opposition in a tweet on Sunday, casting the idea as the latest American fad. “I wonder about the will to Americanize our institutional system, as if we always need to copy the other side of the Atlantic without defending French specificities,” he said. Meanwhile Le Journal du Dimanche reported that Macron himself was “not closed to this option.”
“This is definitely not about Americanizing the French system,” said Roland Lescure, an LREM member of parliament who represents French citizens living in North America, “but rather about having a French experiment that takes into account what works and what doesn’t abroad.”
Mail-in ballots are popular in other European countries. More than 13 million German voters posted their ballots in the 2017 general election, making up 29 percent of the electorate. In the U.K. general election of the same year, nearly 7 million voted by post, making up 22 percent of total ballots cast. And the Netherlands has just allowed its senior citizens to vote by mail in its next general election in March 2021, so that vulnerable people don’t need to go to crowded polling stations.
However, Darmanin has an ally in his battle for French voting traditions: Prime Minister Jean Castex.
In a report commissioned by Castex to request solutions for holding safe regional elections, former President of the Constitutional Council Jean-Louis Debré suggested studying “the development of voting by mail or internet in conditions that would assure the sincerity of the vote.”
But the prime minister’s office was quick to reiterate Darmanin’s objections and identify other “technical difficulties” with mail-in ballots. It cited an estimated cost of €70-90 million and claimed that the need to stop by a post office brings no comparative advantage to in-person voting in terms of social distancing. Castex’s team argues that the French two-round electoral system, with only two weeks between each day of voting, could also turn postal voting into a logistical nightmare.
Source : Politico