PARIS – It started very late on Saturday night, in the subway taking me back home from a friend’s party.

“Don’t forget to vote, sir!” the young girl sitting near me said, apparently a little tipsy. I must have looked at her funny, because she told me, “Yes, I am drunk, but it is very important to vote.”

“But I am a journalist, and a foreign one,” I said, in an effort to explain my intention to abstain.

“It doesn’t matter, you have to vote,” she replied.

As I jumped out of the car at my station near the Pompidou Center, the famous museum of modern art, she kept smiling.

In a few hours the polling stations would open, located in primary and high schools, but also in city halls, for the 44.5 million French citizens with the right to vote.

At 9 a.m. I was in one of those voting places, Rue Saint-Germain-des-Près, to see an old friend, ex-journalist and now a diplomat serving France in Africa, perform his civic duty.

It was very quiet at this early hour on a Sunday, and the sunny weather was set to make the day a celebration of democracy.

But at midday, when it was announced that turnout had reached 29-plus percent, compared to more then 31% at the same time in the first round of the previous presidential election in 2007, I decided to visit another polling station in my street, Rue Saint-Martin.

There were many people quietly waiting their turn, a baby or a dog in the hand, with some helping elderly parents to keep standing.

In a corner, it was written: “In Paris we recycle unused ballots.”

Outside, it was raining, maybe snowing, but just a little. Along the school entrance, the official posters of the 10 candidates: La France Forte (A Strong France, of Nicolas Sarkozy), Le Changement C’est Maintenant (the Change is Now, of François Hollande), Prenez le Pouvoir (Take the Power, of Jean-Luc Mélenchon), Oui, la France (Yes France, of Marine Le Pen), la France Solidaire (France Solidarity, of François Bayrou), and the five smaller candidates such as Philippe Poutou (Aux Capitalistes de Payer la Crise, Capitalists Must Pay for the Crisis), and Jacques Cheminade (ni la City ni Wall Street, Neither the City nor Wall Street).

Inside, a poll worker guides you to the voting booth, the small space behind a curtain where you vote. A few voting commission delegates sit next to a wall dedicated to “the former pupils of this school who died for France, 1914-1918.”

At the entrance to the school, there’s the inscription that has been in all Parisian schools for a decade, and maybe in all French schools: “They were more than 11,000 children deported from France, between 1942 and 1944, and killed in Auschwitz because they were born Jewish, after having been arrested by the police of the Vichy government, which was an ally of the Nazi occupation authorities. More than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement [the area where I stay while in Paris]. Among them are pupils of this boys school.”

After the voting is finished, every self-respecting party holds a special event, a “soirée électorale,” where members, supporters and journalists can eat and drink together, watch the final results live at 8 p.m., and see the official reaction of the candidate.

For Sarkozy’s UMP party, it will be at the Maison de la Mutualité, in the 5th arrondissement. Some 650 journalists are expected to hear the president’s speech at 10 p.m. He voted earlier in the day with his wife, Carla Bruni, in a high school in the 16th arrondissement.

Other candidates voted in their hometowns, for instance Bayrou in Pau on the northern edge of the Pyrenees, and Hollande in Tulle, in the Limousin region.

The Socialist Party headquarters in Paris is expected to be full and journalists were invited to walk in the street nearby, Rue Solférino.

Le Pen’s National Front organized a big event in the Equinoxe Space, near the Aquaboulevard water park.

At the same time, Mélenchon was to hold an open air meeting at the Place de la Bataille-de-Stalingrad.

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