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Sleepwalking to the polls

Mark Mardell | 08:00 UK time, Saturday, 16 May 2009

European election billboard in BerlinAcross this great continent of ours a slight sense of desperation hangs over the European elections: the real world isn't paying attention.

In the Czech city of Plzen campaigners hand out spices that go with feathered game on behalf of a candidate whose name translates as... Mr Game. Those who stop to listen get a cook book with recipes from the 27 EU countries and a picture of the MEP in a chef's hat.

In France, at one rally in a very plush auditorium, the audience are all but outnumbered by the candidates, who answer questions with the eager enthusiasm of an estate agent flogging a haunted house that's perched on the edge of a cliff.

One film encouraging people to vote shows a screaming woman running into a polling booth, marking her ballot paper, still screaming, and running out, screaming. A madman with a bloodstained axe then enters requesting HIS ballot paper - the slogan along the lines of what ever you're doing make sure you find time to vote. All trying to convince you these elections matter.

Of course to some of us they do... they will dominate every waking hour of my life for a month. And distressingly, probably a few of the sleeping ones as well. Some nightmares come wearing chefs' hats and rosettes. European election billboard in Brussels

I am not alone of course. From the Arctic Circle to the middle of the Med there are around 9,000 candidates and they, and their mums, will be playing close attention.

But, in general, interest in the European elections seems to be regarded as a possibly harmless eccentricity, like collecting matchboxes or a tendency to wear cravats... something that says "weirdo".

This at a time when the old milk and honey aren't exactly free-flowing and politics - even international co-operation - might seem to matter.

Nicolas Benoit and Manu Garcia are deeply political animals: French unionists, supporters of the Communist Party. And they've been at the centre of the crisis. Their company Caterpillar in Grenoble is cutting the workforce nearly in half. I sought them out to hear what they thought of the elections. But they've been a bit preoccupied.

Overlooked by the snowy peaks around the city, they told me how, after weeks of fruitless negotiations, striking workers broke into the factory. They regarded it as offensive that the management had installed armed guards with dogs and they went after the bosses. Nicolas says "they jumped ship", clearly regarding this behaviour as unmanly and unsporting. "Ran away! Like Carl Lewis!" interjects Manu.Caterpillar worker in Grenoble

A week later they and about 100 other workers broke into the offices, caught the bosses napping and boss-napped them: offices. "There was a lot of panic with that many people," admits Nicolas, without what I imagine to be some understatement. The bosses were told they couldn't leave. Wisely they didn't try to put up a counter-revolutionary struggle and had an uncomfortable night sleeping on the floor. Twenty-four hours later, with the promise of more talks, they were allowed to go.

Nicolas tells me that they were shocked about the way the boss-napping was seen in other countries. When you are at war you have to get out your bazooka and make a lot of noise. And he says those who were outraged have no idea what it is like not to be able to feed your children.

So what do these very political people, wanting change, think about the election? Manu admits he's been too tied-up with Caterpillar to think about them at all. Nicolas says voting is always important, but the parliament is too dominated by two big groups of left and right. They are clearly not that bothered.

This week the French newspaper Liberation had a headline trying to persuade people to vote: "Europe close to you". But it doesn't feel that way to a lot of people.
There are many reasons for this. But part of it is the nature of the European Parliament itself.

When you vote, if you vote, in June you will not be choosing a government. That's true of congressional elections in the US which, mid-term, have an even lower turnout. But you will not even be choosing a parliament to stand up to a government of a clear stripe: if the EU has a government it is made up of 27 national governments and the commission, so its political complexion shifts almost constantly. When you don't really know what the government is it's difficult to say if you are voting to challenge it.

Then there's what members of the European Parliament do: change or vote down proposed laws. When I put it to a Eurosceptic lord recently that many MEPs had more power than many national ministers he airily replied: "OH, over the size of plugs, and things like that".

A lot of what they do is unglamorous, not the stuff of headlines. This is not to say the elections don't matter. At the moment the rather soft right dominates. If the Socialists were to win most seats the sort of laws coming out of the EU would have a much redder tinge.

But I suspect only when Manu, Nicolas and their friends think it worth turning their hand to MEP-napping will the parliament, and these elections, have come of age. Until then I will pick up my matchboxes, straighten my cravat and make my way to the next rally.

This is a piece I filed for today's edition of From Our Own Correspondent


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