G.C Shekar (Hindustan times, Chennai, April 21)
When French voters line up on Sunday to elect their next President a slice of India too would be part of the exercise. For 5,534 registered French voters of the Union Territory of Pondicherry would be casting their ballot in this former French Colony making their pick from among Right Wing Nicolas Sarkozy, Socialist Segolene Royal and the Centrist Francois Bayrou.
The ballot papers have already arrived and three booths are being set up for the two-phase election on April 22 and May 6. The Franco Pondicherrians, as they’re classified under the French set up, have always been enthusiastic voters among the overseas French.
“In the 2002 Presidential elections Pondicherry registered 47.4% of votes whereas the figure among other overseas French was only 37.27%. In fact during the week prior to the first phase there is some enthusiastic campaigning with supporters of the main candidates visiting voters personally at homes to seek their support,” explained Anand Pakiam, Communication in charge of the French Institute of Pondicherry.
Supporters of the two main parties – Right Wing UMP and the Socialists held their respective campaign meetings out of two wedding halls. Considering the ethnic and language mix speeches were made both in French and Tamil Anand pointed out.
But with the spoken and written knowledge of French diminishing among the second and third generation of French voters the authorities have a peculiar problem on Election Day. “Since the ballot papers are in French these voters need the help of French knowing officials to guide them through the ballot paper,” pointed out an official of the French Consulate.
The voter strength has remained almost unchanged as the number of French nationals who have chosen to settle down in Pondicherry has offset those migrating to France. Seventy four year old Claude Marius who has voted from Pondicherry thrice since 1995 after being worked over half the world as a soil scientist recalls that the Pondicherrians were among the first to join Charles De Gaulle’s army in 1940 and continue to
be solid backers of his party the UMP and in turn its candidate Sarokozy.
But this has been a strange election Marius observed. “All three main candidates are relatively new and inexperienced with no Prime Ministerial record behind them and their economic policies are also the same. No wonder 16 million out of the 44.5 million French voters are undecided about their choice. But here there is no such confusion here as Sarkozy is bound to get most of our votes,” said Marius.
Puducherry chips in with votes in French elections
As France voted to choose a new president on Sunday, far away in this Indian union territory, a clutch of residents also stirred out of their homes to exercise their franchise.
For, this former French enclave has 5,252 registered French voters, including those from Mahe, which is administratively part of Puducherry even though geographically it falls in Kerala.
As many as 44.5 million French voters, many living outside France and its once-distant legions, began the process to choose their president from among three candidates - Socialist Ségolène Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy of the right of centre UMP (Rally for Popular Movement) and Francois Bayrou, seen as a centrist. Twelve others are in the fray.
The elections take place in two phases - on April 22 and on May 6. Voting began at 8 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. By afternoon Sunday, 48 percent of the voters in India had cast their ballot at the voting centres.
Most French voters in India seem to be supporters of the UMP.
N. Balakrishnan, president of the 72-member French Union in Mahe, told IANS that 33 people had cast proxy votes through the French consulate April 16.
"The presidential race would be a close one between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy," said the 62-year-old who returned from France four years ago after living there for 37 years.
Soil scientist Claude Marius, 74, who has voted from Puducherry thrice since 1995, told the media, "The three main candidates are relatively new but Sarkozy is likely to get the most votes."
Besides the three main contenders, "the extremes of the political spectrum will participate. They include three Trotskyites, a Communist, a Green and an anti-MNC, a campaigner for hunters' rights, a Catholic nationalist and an ultra-nationalist", says Auroville resident and political observer Claude Arpi.
Arpi, however, is not voting, "I don't feel 100 percent French. I have been living in India for the past 33 years, I hold a PIO (persons of Indian origin) card (with a French passport)," he admitted.
The French nationals here seem more concerned by the elections of the National Council of the French Abroad, Arpi said.
"Usually, the French voters in Pondicherry vote for the right side of the political spectrum, but it is rather unpredictable this time."
Puducherry remained under French jurisdiction until June 1954 when it became a part of India.