When you supervise a Consulate as big as the one in Brussels, there are events that leave a mark. Organizing an election is one of them.
Elections: a key role of the Consulate-General
In 2012, less than a year after my appointment, the team I met was faced with a first challenge: allowing more than 66,000 French nationals living in Belgium to vote under the best possible conditions, four times between April and June 2012, in presidential elections and the first elections of a National Assembly Deputy for French Nationals Abroad.
The telephone switchboard had already crashed several times under the strain of calls, 20,000 French voters in Brussels had travelled to the Heysel Exhibition Park on 6 May and, like the last members of the team, I had gone off at 7am to sleep for a few hours before spending the rest of the day fielding calls from journalists.
We thought the hardest was done in 2012, but, with these European and consular elections of 25 May 2014, we are preparing for a new challenge, with a more restrictive budget context and a continually increasing French community in Belgium.
A great many voters expected for this double vote
We are nearing 118,000 French nationals registered at the Consulate-General in Brussels, which covers all of Belgium. 81,000 will be called to vote on 25 May 2014.
We therefore need to open 52 polling stations (26 for each election) spread across 10 cities (and 11 sites). And as if that were not enough: the Belgian authorities are organizing their own European, federal and regional elections on the same day.
The task is therefore more complicated for us this year than in 2012, as premises and equipment were lent to us free of charge that year by cities. This was not possible this year, so we have to hire them from universities or private businesses. I visited several possible locations before selecting the best sites, which will host our polling stations.
To calibrate the polling stations, the Consulate bases itself on the turnout of previous European and Assembly of French Nationals Abroad elections, but uncertainties remain around how interested voters will be in the campaign and these polls, the weather, the impact of Belgian elections the same day, and the possibility for French nationals to vote in their Belgian municipality for the European elections, for example.
Setting the number of polling stations too low would be to risk discontent linked to major queues (this was the case for the referendum of 2005), which we luckily managed to avoid in 2012.
A very small Consulate team has been responsible for the organization of the elections over the last months. It has gradually grown, pulling in staff from our other sectors of activity. The number of letters, calls and emails is rising fast. The pace has become very intense since March and has only accentuated week after week. Shadows are growing under everyone’s eyes and we already know that the evenings at the Consulate will be very long during the last week.
We will have to mobilize several people at each polling station on D-Day: a Presiding Officer, a Secretary and Clerks. That will require several hundred volunteers in Belgium; although all Consulate staff will be fielded, their limited numbers mean we will have to draw on our relationships with French associations to staff Polling Stations, with a pool of Clerks.
It is a special moment in the life of the head of a diplomatic or consular post to mobilize their whole team for the success of a poll. I was lucky enough to have good team support, to be surrounded by willing, competent and motivated staff who were aware of the importance of these events. They promote the elections and are at the same time motivated by them. They naturally accept to prioritize this event and, so as not to sacrifice their other roles, get involved above and beyond their usual responsibilities. My role is to coordinate their energies and expertise like an orchestra conductor, while dealing with public relations (contacts with Belgian authorities, French elected representatives, journalists, etc.).
Very practical work
Preparing elections involves very precise, methodological work. We work to a schedule in order to avoid missing any of the successive deadlines that must be met for legal or logistical reasons.
We hold regular meetings on important subjects including voting venues, electoral rolls, polling station staffing, communication and transport logistics (payment of advances, delivery schedule for booths and display panels hired in France). We study the location plans for Polling Stations and booths that an installer will place on the main central site (which we are renting in Brussels, as the high school is insufficient) and we discuss all the quotes, to reduce all costs as much as possible. Soon, we will divide the ballot papers to be sent to each regional city, note electronic votes on electoral rolls, etc. We will have to go into the smallest details, providing water and supplies for Clerks, preparing signs for the public, training the Presiding Officers and Secretaries of the Polling Stations, and organize the delivery of ballot boxes, electoral codes, ballot papers and electoral rolls to 10 different cities, etc.
Time for another round!
I have excellent memories of the 2012 elections which were a first high point of my posting to Brussels. I am in no doubt that these elections will be another. I hope turnout will be high this year, given the democratic and civic stakes of these elections, particularly in Brussels, which is the heart of the EU.