Granny-hugging to crowd-bathing: The essential vocab to understand French politics

Granny-hugging to crowd-bathing:  The essential vocab to understand French politics
Photo: Damien Meyer/AFP
Sunday sees the first round of France's regional elections, but with informal campaigning already underway for the presidential elections of 2022 there is going to be a lot of politics talk over the next 10 months - here are some of the key phrases you will need.

Let’s start with some of the basics:

Voter – to vote. This is what the French will be asked to do for the regional elections on June 20th and 27th, le premier tour and le deuxième tour (the first and second rounds) of the elections. These regional elections are being closely watched because it is the last time that the French will head to the polls before the presidential election next year. 

EXPLAINED: What’s at stake in France’s regional elections

In both regional and presidential elections only French citizens get to vote, while in local and European elections EU citizens who live in France can vote too – of course, this no longer includes British nationals who live in France.

Un bureau de vote – polling station. Where electors go to cast their vote. Each town has a different number of polling stations, depending on the number of voters. Between 800 and 1,000 people are registered per bureaux de vote

Un isoloir – polling booth. There is at least one booth for each 300 registered voters in a polling station. They allow each voter to choose the candidate they will vote for in secret. Isoloirs are mandatory to guarantee the right to free election. 

Une urne – ballot box. Where each voter drops his or her ballot paper. 

French political campaigns are often lively affairs and some very specific vocab has evolved to deal with some of the events of the campaign trail.

Enfariné – getting covered in flour. This was in the news last week as two politicians had flour thrown over them. Far left presidential candidate for 2022 Jean-Luc Mélenchon was enfariné as he was talking to reporters during a march against extreme right-wing ideas in Paris, while former environment minister François de Rugy had flour thrown over him while he was campaigning for the regional elections in Nantes in western France. It can also mean to be fooled

Bain de foule – walkabouts. Literally translated as a ‘crowd bath’, the traditional walkabout and greeting which politicians often do when they are campaigning was enlivened last week when French president Emmanuel Macron was slapped in the face (or giflé) as he greeted members of the public while on tour in southern France.

Serrer des paluches – shaking hands. Candidates can’t really do this right now because of Covid, but shaking hands with the public is a common gesture for electoral candidates while on tour. 

Croque-mémé – granny-hugger. For politicians who go further than a handshake – this nickname was jokingly applied to French Prime Minister Jean Castex, who apparently in his earlier political incarnations was known for hugging mémés (grannies) while on the election trail.

Leaving aside the lovelorn grannies, there are also the technical aspects of the election to consider.

La clôture du scrutin – the closing of polls. The time of this depends on the Préfectoral decree. It can close at 6pm, 7pm or 8pm depending on the town and big cities tend to leave their polls open until later. The president of the polling station officially announces the hour of the closing of polls and from that time no more votes can be cast. However, if a voter has entered the bureau de vote before the closing time, they can drop their ballot in the urne

Le dépouillement des votes – counting of ballots. This starts as soon as the polls close. The tellers from both sides count the vote under the eye of the members of the bureau

Les estimations de résultats – opinion polls. Once the ballot is closed a detailed opinion poll is published which usually gives an accurate guess of who has won. This means that French elections tend not to be all-night rolling news affairs like UK elections or days-long rolling news affairs like US presidential elections. Less exciting perhaps, but journalists appreciate getting their beauty sleep.

Candidat or candidate – candidate (male or female). To be a candidate for regional elections you must have French citizenship, be registered on an electoral list, live in the region or pay taxes there and be at least 18 years old when the elections are held. Candidates for any type of election (including the presidential elections) do not have to be born as French citizens, people who were naturalised later in life are eligible for all public offices.

Tête de liste – head of the list. French elections use proportional representation so people cast their vote for a party and the party ranks its candidates in list order and the candidates towards the top of the list are elected, depending on how many votes the party gets. Those at the head of the list for the major parties are therefore fairly certain to be elected, unless the party suffers a complete electoral wipeout.

Favori/favorite – the favourite or candidate considered most likely to win. According to current polls, president of the regional council of île-de-France Valérie Pécresse is the “favorite” and should be reelected as well as president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes région Laurent Wauquiez. 

Coude-à-coude – neck and neck. Literally translated as ‘elbow to elbow’ this is a figurative way of saying that two political contestants are very close in the polls. 

So with the technicalities out of the way we can turn to everyone’s favourite bit of elections – the gossip and scandal.

Scandale – scandal. French politics has plenty of these and they can impact elections, such as the financial scandal that embroiled centre-right candidate François Fillon ahead of the 2017 election. The Benalla affair was the first major scandal of Macron’s presidency, coming just a year after his election, while former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is on trial over claims of illicit financing for his failed 2012 re-election campaign, also know as the “Bygmalion affair.”

Affaire – affair. Not just in a political context this can refer to any ongoing controversy or scandal. Unlike in English, where affair tends to mean a romantic or sexual affair, in French it can cover anything. In some senses it’s like the English -gate suffix (after Watergate) that is attached to scandals. In English there is Celebgate, Gamergate and Nipplegate, while French has l’Affaire Mila, l’Affaire Benalla and l’Affaire Sarah Halimi.

Avoir des casseroles (au cul) – scandal plagued. Literally translating as ‘having saucepans dangling from their ass’ this descriptive little phrase refers to a politician who is so plagued by scandals that it drowns out their message (like the noise from a bunch of dangling saucepans).

Altercation – quarrel. Stronger than a mere political disagreement, this often happen between two candidates or political figures. Last weekend, there was une vive altercation – a lively quarrel – between Minister of Justice Éric Dupond-Moretti and far left deputy François Ruffin in the Hauts de France région. 

And a couple of insults . . .

We’re firmly of the belief that politics should be fought through words and that disputes should centre on the issues not the personalities. That said, everyone needs to shout at the TV from time to time when a particularly exasperating politician is on, so here are a couple of apt insults.

Faux-cul – hypocrite. Actually meaning ‘false bottom’ this phrase has an interesting history but now means someone who says the opposite of what they do.

Mon cul, c’est du poulet ! – I do not believe you. OK, the exact translation is a little more vulgar. But if you see a politician on TV swearing to govern with integrity and honesty and you wish to express your scepticism, you can shout mon cul, c’est du poulet (my arse is a chicken) or the shortened version mon cul ! to say ‘yeah, right !’

READ ALSO Cool cul: 13 of the best French ‘bottom’ expressions


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