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THE FLAG'S flying outside the Mairie, the village town hall, flopping idly in the soft spring breeze. Sunning himself at the top of the steps is Jean-Claude, looking like a prosperous antiquarian taking a breather in the shop doorway and scanning

THE FLAG'S flying outside the Mairie, the village town hall, flopping idly in the soft spring breeze. Sunning himself at the top of the steps is Jean-Claude, looking like a prosperous antiquarian taking a breather in the shop doorway and scanning the pavements for custom, and we're pleased to see him, because we know him well: he's a bass in my choir.

Indeed, maybe the Mairie will be his shop doorway, in a manner of speaking, later that evening when the poll has closed and the vote-counting has finished, because Jean-Claude is up for election as a municipal councillor. It's a big day for him, he's taken his destiny in both hands: he's relatively new to the village, and he's from the north, from la région parisienne, both handicaps in the Midi when it comes to getting the locals to vote for you.

But he's got a trump card: the maire, who's fairly certain of getting back in, has asked Jean-Claude to stand, and the maire's endorsement is probably as good as a couple of hundred votes in a village where there are only about 450 voters.

We shake hands with Jean-Claude, go in, and we're rather surprised to be greeted with a cheer from the officials on duty, not something we ever remember from voting experiences in the UK. But then the village election team isn't much like the dour and unsmiling polling station officials we've been used to: it's more like an end-of-term bash with the outgoing maire, hand on the shutter of the ballot box, presiding over his own possible re-election, several outgoing councillors and village elders dealing with the paperwork and the maire's one opponent seeing fair play. They seem to be having a high old time of it. Admittedly, it's 3 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, not long after lunch.

But the cheer we get is because it's our First Time. We haven't been able to vote in French elections until now. We're about to lose our democratic virginity, a pretty exciting prospect at our advanced age. And we're the only Brits in the village on the electoral register. In fact our numbers on the roll of foreign residents entitled to vote in local elections are 1 and 2.

Jean-Claude, ever the willing guide, gives us two printed lists, the first with 15 names on it, including his own, headed by the outgoing maire, and if they're elected en bloc they'll form the new council. But there's a second, rival list, with only four names on it. These are our ballot papers. We can choose a maximum of 15 people of the 19 on offer. There seem to be 6 options.

Option 1: We can make our choice by crossing off the unwanted candidates and leaving unmarked those we do want.

Option 2: We can simply throw away the list we don't want.

Option 3: We can mix 'n' match from both lists, just as long as our choice doesn't exceed 15.

Option 4: If we're thoroughly cheesed off with the lot of them, we can cross everybody's name out.

Clear so far? Ha. You ain't seen nothin' yet.

Option 5: If we want to vote for somebody completely different, Jean-Claude tells us, we're free to write in his/her name, just as long as our candidate's on the village electoral roll and isn't actually in prison.

Option 6: If we find this is all too bizarre or complicated, especially in view of the splendid Sunday lunch we've just enjoyed along the road at Le Châtaignon, we can just shove off home and not bother.

This option seems a bit defeatist, however, so we hand over our election cards, determined to go all the way, and the maire gives us each an orange envelope printed REPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE.

We go into the polling booth. There aren't any pencils, but there is a waste-paper basket. It's overflowing: most people seem to have taken up Option 2 and have binned one or other of the lists. Even without riffling through the rejects it's easy to see the voting trend. Jean-Claude needn't worry too much.

We do the necessary, put our paper(s) into the orange envelope, drop them into the ballot box when the maire opens the slot for us, sign the register, reclaim our voting cards for the next go in six years' time, shake hands with the end-of-termers and go home, reeling. Phew. Did we reel home in much the same way after other Losses of Innocence?

WE WENT to look at the results pinned on the Mairie door a couple of days later. As expected, all the retiring maire's list got in. None of the rival four did. Jean-Claude made it comfortably by some 40 votes. But what struck us most was the Option 5 factor, extra names that people had added to their ballot papers. There were FIFTY of them, all with one or two votes. Had there been a brisk trade in people voting for themselves? Why, Josephine and I could have voted for each other as well as for ourselves, if only we'd thought of it. That way we'd have had two votes each, equalling the tally of Françoise, our dentist's wife, who wasn't even there to vote. Nor was her husband Pierre, who only got one vote. Had he been a bit too handy with the drill with one of his patients?

Alexa, receptionist at the local environmental centre, also got one vote, and I think she was pretty pleased, although her analysis was swift and pithy: C'est un admirateur secret, she said. Ou un crétin.

ALONG TO Panassiers, where the re-elected maire and his slightly reconstituted council is holding a reception, according to the invitation, for all the village clubs and societies. My choir is registered in Panassiers, although it draws its membership from far and wide. I go along with about a dozen choir members, including Jean-Claude, to the salle polyvalente, where the tables are bowed under the weight of the bottles of municipal pastis and muscat.

Most of the village is there, about 200 people altogether. The maire reinforces his popularity by speaking for a mere five minutes, introducing the new members of his conseil and thanking the associations, which he properly describes as the lifeblood of the community, for the work they do and wishing them bonne continuation. However, he only lists four associations, the playgroup, the village hunt, the football club and the choir.

Jean-Claude and I do some rapid calculation. At full strength the choir numbers 40, although there's only a dozen of us there. The football club only fields one team and about 30 people belong to the hunt. We can only assume that the Panassiers playgroup boasts about 150 adult members.

Unless, of course, the maire simply forgot to mention the Freeloaders Club.

SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!

There's a bust of her in every Mairie, she appears on postage stamps, on public solicitors' brass plaques, on income tax forms, on parking tickets, on our voting cards, everywhere with the slightest whiff of officialdom. She's a sort of personification of the French republic. The current model of her is the actress Laetitia Casta. Previous models have been Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau.

The most famous statue of her isn't in France at all, but at the entrance to New York harbour, a gift from the French to the people of the United States in 1876: the Statue of Liberty.

So what's her name? First correct e-mail answer wins.

Bonne chance!