Volume 17 • Issue 23 | Oct. 29 - Nov. 4, 2004

Talking Point

Thinking about politics and Varick St. while living in France

By Patricia Fieldsteel

NYONS, France — I voted on October 7th — mailed in the yellow pre-addressed absentee ballot envelope to Varick St. I admit I overdid it on the stamps. The instructions were in Spanish, Chinese and Korean and on the reverse side very briefly in English. I carefully blackened in the little ovals in the Democratic B column underneath Kerry/Edwards, Schumer and Nadler — no hanging or pregnant chads or misaligned boxes. I confess to my heart’s beating rapidly, to even feeling a little teary as I did this — made a Xerox copy of my vote and trotted around the corner to the regulation yellow La Poste mailbox on the Rue des Déportés.

The last time I voted was Sept. 11, 2001, in an election that was later annulled. When I’d entered the deserted polling place in the 13th St. Lesbian and Gay Community Center, the towers were burning alive. I quickly cast my vote and exited; only one tower remained. A few months later, I moved to France.

The first time I voted was the presidential race of 1968, when the voting age was still 21. The country was ripped apart by a wound that seemed to never heal: the Vietnam War was destroying not only Vietnam but America as well; on March 31, L.B.J. announced he would not seek another term; Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, followed two months later by the brutal murder of Bobby Kennedy, minutes after he’d defeated Eugene McCarthy in the California primary. As I sat home alone in front of my tiny black-and-white TV, watching R.F.K.’s funeral train crawl from New York down to Washington, it did not seem possible the stability and morale of the country could get any worse.

Then there was Chicago and the chant of the clubbed and beaten anti-war demonstrators: The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching!

Today, thirty-six years later, that chant has returned, a million times louder. By comparison, 1968, at the time the most terrible of years, seems now strangely mild, innocent almost.

Much has been written about the decline in French-American relations since 2000. Relations between governments are not the same as those between people. My own experience has been that French people fear and despise the Bush administration but have little or no animosity towards Americans. Elect Bush again and that will radically change. A friend in Germany said to me the other day that everyone knows Bush wasn’t really the winner; even if he had been, a mistake once can be forgiven, twice is something else.

All of us overseas suffer in varying degrees from what is known as the Ambassador Syndrome, feeling we are each being held as the sole representative of the United States, instead of just being ordinary people living quietly abroad. From the moment I arrived here, I made clear how opposed I am to the Bush administration. I took part in the local demonstrations against war in Iraq, knowing full well as the only year-round American legally residing in this town, I am known, and known even by people who neither know my name nor know me personally, as simply L’Americaine. So far, people have been kind.

As each new shocking revelation from Iraq mounts, French people have approached me, putting a hand gently on my arm, saying how sorry they are, in much the same way one would approach a person who had recently suffered a death in the family. This is happening less and less. Daily, I am asked, what is going to happen next Tuesday, as if I knew!

Americans overseas have applied for absentee ballots in record numbers, more than 110,000 in the past ten weeks. A close friend who has lived in Europe for more than thirty years has voted for Kerry by absentee ballot from Virginia, where she last voted 30 years ago. Her three adult children in Europe have done the same. She is not a political person and has sat out American elections for three decades, feeling much more rooted in Europe than she ever did in the U.S. Americans who thought they’d left, have suddenly woken up to the fact none of us really can.

Democrats Abroad is all over, stridently active, effective and strong. Supposedly there’s a Republicans Abroad in France as well. No one I know has heard from them or even seen a sign of their presence.

Horror stories abound of American Democrats in Europe having had their 2000 ballots returned to them in the mail several months later, uncounted. A man I know of in Paris just received his absentee ballot from Ohio. The only problem is the Democratic candidate for president on his 2004 Ohio ballot is listed as Al Gore.

Thus far I have resisted the temptation to call Varick St. to see if my ballot has arrived. Many others over here have not; when they do phone, they are told by harried elections officials that they are being swamped by such calls from Americans overseas.

Our votes have been cast. Next week, when you go to the polls, America, in case you didn’t hear it the first time ’round: The whole world is watching!

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