French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

THERE'S AN unexpected duel going on inside our letter-box. You wouldn't have thought it, just looking at it from the outside, but inside its placid green exterior there's goodness knows what Gallic mayhem and brouhaha going on . . .

The spi

THERE'S AN unexpected duel going on inside our letter-box. You wouldn't have thought it, just looking at it from the outside, but inside its placid green exterior there's goodness knows what Gallic mayhem and brouhaha going on . . .

The spider got there first, maybe over-expectant of fat juicy flies blundering in from the spring sunshine through the letter-flap. Second to arrive was an over-wintering wasp, looking for somewhere quiet and sheltered to build its nest. I should have got rid of them both, of course, but it occurred to me that just as the Romans tried to foretell the future by counting birds in the sky or examining chicken livers, so the denizens of our letter-box, if left to themselves, might foretell the result of the French presidential elections.

Anyway, the inner life of the letter-box was rudely shaken the other day with two massive sheaves of papers thrust inside, one for me and one for Josephine. They were election manifestos, 4-page addresses from each of the 16 candidates. Folded inside were 16 voting slips, each printed with a wannabe-President's name.

We looked at them closely round the breakfast table. Very curious. As non-French citizens we can't vote in these elections. Local elections, yes, and European ones too, but the Chambre des Députés and the President have to assume office without our suffrage. Why had they been delivered, then? We could only assume that La Poste in the village had been told to stuff them into every letter-box regardless of spiders, wasps or the electoral status of the householder.

But there they all were. The front-runners (as it seemed), the retiring President Jacques Chirac, the retiring Prime Minister Lionel Jospin: scarred veterans of presidential elections like Robert Hue, the teddy-bear-like communist leader; the untiring candidate for The Workers' Struggle, simply known as Arlette, and the sinister Jean-Marie Le Pen, accompanied on the National Front campaign trail by shaven-headed heavies, his election rallies always slightly reminiscent of Nuremburg 1936. A fair sprinkling of left-wing hopefuls, including a smiling Trotskyite postman (not ours), and a maverick or two including Jean Saint-Josse, who stands for a party called Chasse, Pêche, Nature, Tradition (CPNT), a deepest-France affiliation of hunters, shooters and fishers who don't want their rural conservatism mucked about by Brussels.

IF YOU didn't know already, the presidential elections take place in two stages a fortnight apart. The two front runners from Stage 1 slog it out in Stage 2. It's not a bad system: everyone has their chance, the mavericks and no-hopers are eliminated, protest votes are registered, two serious candidates emerge.

Or that's the theory.

We switched on the television in the evening of Stage 1. Chirac and Jospin would emerge, undoubtedly. All the polls forecast it. No other result was possible. Centre left versus centre right. Same old contest. Plus ça change. Yawn, yawn. How about an early night?

But at 8pm the blow fell, and all France rocked. You could probably have heard the gasp of disbelief and consternation. Jospin's vote had melted away, scattered like birdseed among the other socialist candidates and especially among the 11 million - out of an electorate of 41 million - who hadn't bothered to vote.

The unthinkable had happened. Le Pen was in the final. His vote had increased slightly, a percentage point or two up on previous presidential elections, enough to draw attention to the problems of law and order, unemployment and immigration that worry so many French people but not enough to suggest that a crushing majority wanted a jackboot régime.

At last, French politics were getting interesting. Impromptu anti-National Front demonstrations materialised in the cities. Heartbroken, tearful Jospin supporters poured on to the streets. Disappointed Communists and Trotskyites urged their followers to block Le Pen at all costs in the second round, which was tantamount to telling them to vote for Chirac. Things had taken a strange turn.

IN THE morning, after a night troubled by thoughts of what might happen if Le Pen got in and really did send all foreigners home, or somewhere else anyway, I went down to the Mairie, where the local results were pinned up on the door. There are only about 400 electors in the village, but the results weren't wholly typical of the rest of France:

Jospin 67
Saint-Josse 58
Le Pen 48
Chirac 46

- and the rest came in nowhere, unless you count Abstentions and Spoilt Papers 108 as a positive result.

BY THE time you read this you'll probably know the final result anyway. At this point the auguries aren't easy. I have to tell you that in our letter-box things have taken a pretty dramatic turn: the wasp is no more. The spider reigns unchallenged. In the land that gave birth to La Fontaine's adaptations of Aesop, we should maybe pay attention to The Fable of The Wasp and The Spider, but there's a big problem: is Chirac, a man with at least a question-mark over some financial features of his past - is Chirac the wasp or the spider?

Somebody else hasn't found the solution, either. At one of the countless anti-National Front demos held all over France, among the many waving placards we read VOTEZ ESCROC, PAS FACHO. Vote Crook, not Fascist. Maybe it's just as well we don't have the vote

SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!

What am I to do with those voting papers? Here's just the thing: the first person past the e-mail post with the correct answer to the following question wins a genuine primary historical document, viz. a complete set of the French 2002 Presidential Election Ballot Papers. Wow! or Tiens! as they say here.

What name links a Paris airport, the latest French aircraft-carrier and the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises?

Francophile Canadian Robin Quinn won the last competition, correctly identifying St Laurence's badge or trademark as the gridiron on which the poor bloke was roasted. He wins a bunch of rosemary from our garden, in good time for the Ottawa barbecue season. Bon appetit, Rob!