by Basil Howitt
Here is a story no writer of political farce could ever make up! According to our great local rag L’Indépendant, “In the history of Perpignan, no election result can ever have been more close and complicated.” A blow-by-blow account of this saga would already fill a book, so here are just a few highlights up to Easter.
Many predicted, myself included, that Jean-Paul Alduy, dynastic mayor of Perpignan since 1994, looked certain to be re-elected outright in the first round of the municipal elections on 9th March.
We were wrong. Although Alduy (UMP, centre right) was 18 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, the Socialist candidate Jacqueline Amiel-Donat, a second round was necessary. Amiel-Donat’s own “liste” (team of candidates) was already a bewildering mix of rather reluctant bedfellows, including the LO (Trotskyists or Workers’ Struggle), the PRG (Left Radical Party), and the ERC (Republican Left for a National Cross-Border Catalonia).
In a low 55% turnout, Alduy’s 38.88% vote share was outnumbered by the combined opposition of Amiel-Donat’s list (20.16%) and those of Jean Codognès (DVG or Dissident Socialists, 15.12%), Louis Aliot (FN or National Front, 12.29%), Clotilde Ripoull (MoDem – the centrist Democratic Movement founded by Bayrou, 8.53%) and Michael Cufi (LCR – Revolutionary Communists, 5.02%).
It seemed unlikely that the surviving left-wing lists would agree to combine against Alduy in the second round. Yet this is what they did.
At the urging of Christian Bourquin, Socialist President of the Conseil Général whose relationship with Alduy has been one of mutual and destructive loathing, the MoDems and the Dissident Socialists joined Amiel-Donat at the last moment, with the aim of presenting “an alternative to the stranglehold Jean-Paul Alduy held over Perpignan”. The battlecry of this “Liste d’Union” (LU) became “tout sauf Alduy” – everyone except Alduy.
Overall, so far so good, for both sides of the political divide. The Left had a chance of ousting Alduy whilst he would be the main beneficiary of a hopefully improved attendance at the polls on 16th March. Which indeed there was, with a 62% turnout (an additional 4,700 voters) and only 1% of the voting slips spoiled or left blank.
“L’affaire de la Chaussette”.
Now for those stinking socks!
On the night of the second round election (16 March) we switched on our local radio station (France Bleu Roussillon) at 10.00 p.m. Alduy’s victory over his opponents by a small though clear majority of 574 votes (a 45.48% share against Amiel-Donat’s 44.11% and the FN’s 10.42%) was in disarray.
Next morning we learned the full story. Soon after 7.00pm, “cheating” of farcical proportions had been spotted by an LU candidate in polling station number 4 in the Haut-Vernet district of north Perpignan.
During the ballot count this sharp-eyed lady noticed that the polling station’s Presiding Officer, no less, was sporting two blue ballot envelopes protruding from his jacket pocket as he sat counting the votes.
Another envelope lay crumpled at his feet on the floor. This Presiding Officer was one Georges Garcia, brother of Manu Garcia who was one of Alduy’s confederates on the Town Council.
Our observer first made sure she wasn’t seeing things by walking right round the table, and then alerted Amiel-Donat’s delegated scrutineer at the polling station, a Monsieur Claude Got.
It was now 7.30, and Got demanded an immediate halt to the count. He then telephoned the above mentioned Jean Codognès urging him to bring legal assistance as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, George Garcia demanded to be allowed to go to the toilet, but one scrutineer, Ali, was having none of it and physically detained him while the police were called.
By now the atmosphere was highly charged. Some of Garcia’s supporters tried to help him escape “by a concealed door”, while the ballot papers remained uncounted.
By 7.45 the police had arrived. To calm things down, Garcia was moved to a room in an annex. Carrying crutches, Garcia was spotted by Got bending down and “withdrawing a dozen voting slips from his left sock, trying to get rid of them by placing them on a cupboard”.
The police immediately recovered the documents, comprising 12 filled envelopes and some loose voting slips, “the former in favour of Alduy. the latter in favour of Amiel-Donat”. The Public Prosecutor Jean-Pierre Dreno had now arrived and having listened to all parties, launched an enquiry by the judicial police, who interviewed witnesses and the accused.
At 8.20pm Dominique Decomble, President of the High Court and the Commission for the Control of Elections, arrived with two bailiffs (“huissiers”).
He wasn’t convinced by Garcia’s explanation that he had only been trying to reconcile the number of voting slips against the number of signatures, but nevertheless ordered counting to continue. At 9.15pm Garcia was placed in police custody, and on the following Tuesday would be indicted for electoral fraud and bailed under “judicial control”.
At 10.00pm, Decomble announced the ballot result for Haut Vernet, Alduy being the winner. Declaring two of the votes invalid, Decomble then validated Alduy’s election as mayor of Perpignan. Already 300 demonstrators were gathering outside the Mairie demanding another election and Alduy’s resignation.
“Better to have smelly feet than holes in one’s socks.”
Accusations now flew thick and fast from the LU. In subsequent interviews and press conferences Amiel-Donat accused Alduy and his “henchmen” of “generalised fraud” on a massive scale, declaring that the Haut Vernet débâcle was only “the tip of the iceberg”. She claimed to have evidence of “cheating” and “irregularities” at other polling stations. Obviously Garcia had not been acting alone: it wouldn’t have been worth his while risking 5 years in jail for the sake of a couple of voting slips.
Not only had the Union “spotted the signature of a person born in 1902”, they claimed they also had evidence of an increase in proxy votes from retirement homes and geriatric wards. Proxy votes had doubled between the 1st and 2nd rounds from 1,000 to 2,000. Although the law forbids the soliciting of proxy votes, the hospitals and homes were “scoured” for them. The henchmen arrived “to extract by force” signatures from “little old men and women”. The Union already had found 12 such cases in the 130 proxy votes examined. Furthermore, Codognès was investigating the distribution of food parcels as bribes.
Amiel-Donat had also received phone calls from people who were beginning to denounce Alduy’s skulduggery. She appealed to everyone who had been subjected to “threats and pressures exerted by Alduy’s henchmen” to come forward in spite of their fear of recriminations.
Alduy was not a mayor, only a “chef de clan”. If he had “an ounce of honour” he would call for another election. A true “bagarre” (fight) was necessary against this “Mafioso system”.
Amiel-Donat, a barrister and lecturer in law at Perpignan University, expounded at further length her knowledge of electoral fraud, including the secreting of voting slips, strategic visits to the toilet, and sorties outside for a quick smoke. I leave you to imagine all these as we now move on to her battle cries.
From Monday to Thursday she rallied her supporters in a crescendo of demonstrations outside the Mairie. Even though this was still only Holy Week, they bore all the marks of an Easter carnival.
Up to 1,000 demonstrators, including those who tagged along for the party, responded to Amiel-Donat’s calls for nightly protests at 6.00pm outside the Mairie against “this violation of the principles of democracy”.
Not only socks, but also placards, trumpets, drums, saucepans and whistles were all grist to the mill, while little baby dolls sported the message “I also vote (already) for Alduy” in reference to a voter supposedly born only last June.
On Wednesday the crowd marched seven times round the Mairie “to bring down the walls [of Jericho] and restore democracy”. As they did so they shouted by-now familiar slogans such as “Alduy resign”, “cheating senator” and “we want another ballot”.
Come Thursday candles were requested “for our last prayer”, as well as black armbands and veils “to mourn the death of democracy”. The candles idea, however, was literally blown away by our notorious wind, La Tramontane.
On Good Friday the week culminated in the lodging by the Union of a 166-page appeal to the Tribunal Administratif against the election result on the grounds of fraudulent practices. The Tribunal Administratif, based in Montpellier, is the court responsible for dealing with legal issues in public administration at all levels. The verdict will be given in two to three months time.
Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.