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Subversive voting, or how the French spoil their ballot papers

You might not guess, but the image below celebrating the Second Republic of 1848 was cast at Dijon as a negative vote in the referendum of 1851, which sought approval for the coup d’état that brought Louis-Napoleon (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) to power in France. The overwhelming majority voted positively but, among a minority of dissenters, there were those who chose to graphically illustrate their opposition. Others made adverse written comments on their papers and still more defaced the ballot they had been instructed to use by the newly installed Napoleonic authorities, or submitted blank pieces of paper to the ballot box.

Annotated ballot paper cast at Dijon Nord (Côte-d’Or) in the plebiscite of 1851 (A[rchives] N[ationales], BII 1065A). This document is held at the Archives nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine
Document conserved at the Archives nationales de France, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, BII 1065A, Côte-d’Or, Plébiscite de 1851. Reproduced with permission.

Now, this is not simply a matter of historical curiosity, though it is one that has rarely attracted attention, but merely one fascinating instance of a deeply ingrained tradition of electoral protest in France, which has few echoes in Britain. Indeed, spoiling the ballot paper has become more popular in recent French elections, with over 5% of votes declared null and void in the second round of presidential elections in 2002 and 2012, representing roughly two million electors. To be sure, many of these subversive votes today are blanks. In other words the envelope the French have employed since 1914 is left empty, or the ballot paper inserted into it has been cancelled out in some way, but comments continue to be added, and a small number of voters still go the trouble of composing their own paper.

Annotated ballot paper from the French legislative election 8 May 1898.
Document conserved at the Archives nationales de France, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, C5217, Élections législatives, 8 May 1898, at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. Reproduced with permission.

Similar practices do exist elsewhere (and I would be delighted to hear about them), but they go back a long way in France, where voting with a ballot paper became compulsory after the Revolution of 1789. From 1848 onwards, all French adult males could vote (women had to wait another century) and they did so frequently, in both general and local elections, in huge numbers. Ironically, it was spoiled papers that were kept to document their invalidation, while the votes that literally counted were destroyed once the election result was declared. The evidence for the practice of spoiling is thus readily available in the French archives, as a typewritten example from 1898 demonstrates (above). In this instance, the author is voting for the novelist Emile Zola, who had famously declared his support for the alleged ‘traitor’, Captain Dreyfus, but he is also affirming his commitment to the Republic and Justice, while condemning parliamentary politics and the fickle nature of public opinion.

But why bother to spoil, still more to annotate or create a paper, rather than simply stay at home or ‘go fishing’, as the French expression for electoral abstention puts it? Is it another example of our noisy neighbours’ awkward behaviour, part of their vast repertoire of protest activities? Until the advent of wholly secure voting in 1914, when envelope and polling booth were introduced, defacing a paper distributed by a party agent or government official was a way of resisting such pressure. However, discussion remained closely associated with election in France until 1848, when voting in assemblies came to an end, and writing on the ballot paper was a means of perpetuating that discursive tradition. It was also a challenge to the basic choice – yes or no, or between candidates – which the simple, individual act of voting subsequently became. Finally, as the preceding annotated ballot paper suggests, it was also an affirmation of the elector’s sovereignty, at least for the duration of polling day.

Annotated ballot paper from the French referendum of 1851
Document conserved at the Archives nationales de France, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, BII 1065A, Côte-d’Or, Plébiscite de 1851, canton de Gevrey, showing an old man literally bearing a yes vote for Louis-Napoleon. Reproduced with permission.

This further, illustrated example (above) suggests there was also an element of playfulness at work, but one which often aimed to undermine the disciplined formality, even ‘sacred’ nature of the civic duty that voting was becoming as the nineteenth century wore on. Writing ‘merde’ in large letters, or adding derogatory comments about candidates, was also a means of challenging the current electoral process. It was evidently inspired by contemporary political caricature, as well as by anarchists who regarded representative democracy as a confidence trick on the people.

At a time when electoral participation is generally declining in Europe, might permission to annotate ballot papers help revive enthusiasm for voting? The French have an association for promoting recognition of the blank vote, which is equated with abstaining, though the voter has gone to the trouble of casting a ballot. Elsewhere there are demands for NOTA, ‘none of the above’, as an option on the paper (or, in many cases today on the electronic screen, which renders any written protest impossible) to cater for those who feel their choice at the polls is too limited. Should room be provided to nominate additional candidates,a facility offered by some states in the United States, or to register a protest about a particular issue? Not surprisingly, the political class are reluctant to offer such latitude, but it is surely more democratic to create a space for dissent rather than experience rising abstention. If people feel disenfranchised by the options presented to them, surely they should be given this means of expression?

Header image: D’Allonville’s cavalry in the street of Paris during Napoleon III’s coup. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Burt Altman

    Interesting article. Makes one think about the invalidated ballots here in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

  2. […] 4 MILLION French voters spoilt their ballot paper in the most recent French elections to voice there disapproval for their voting options and the state of the political system in […]

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