A Role To Play

I have always found voting an oddly stirring experience. Possibly because it is one of those intermittent events that binds us as individuals to something bigger – reminds us that we have the privilege and responsibility to gather ourselves to decide whose umbrella we will open over our collective heads.

Last Sunday I voted in the French Presidential election. After testing the temperature during a visit last year, and keeping an ear to the ground ever since, I found myself cramming the week before the ballot. Voting is non-compulsory, but I spent my bus trips sifting through campaign brochures, sorting the candidates into left and right, possible and absurd and staring hopelessly at the pages of the two central prongs.

I have never lived permanently in France, and it is strange to vote from afar. Without being ‘on the ground’, living with the direct outcomes of government, one is, in effect, voting purely for an ideology. But I was determined to contribute, as a way of expressing my frequent longing for my Frenchness, as a way of making sure that I too could still take shelter under their umbrella.

On Sunday morning the Cygnet accompanied me as we mounted the tower of the French Consul in Sydney’s city centre. Yes we were sure we were required to vote at this location, yes we had received our little paper squares from France, yes we would follow the white arrows around the consular corridor (the French love a bit of procedural complication!) Voting consists of being identified on an electoral roll and then cocooning oneself in a curtained isolation booth, sifting through ten names on ten ballots of butcher’s paper and folding your chosen one into an exquisite blue envelope, perfectly inscribed with a cursive ‘République Française‘.

Emerging, you join another queue to approach the ballot box, which is guarded by a handsome, tanned man in a perfectly pressed shirt and silk tie. He takes your passport, calls your name to a woman manning a second electoral roll, who confirms again that you are who your passport says you are – at which point the gentleman opens the slot to the box and you may cast your vote. ‘À voter!’ he calls ceremoniously. You have been counted.

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There are things I often long for from my other culture, that extend beyond good table red and cheese: the stamina for long, heated discourse; the insistence on aesthetics; the slightly inbred obsession with ‘specialitiés’. But until October last year, I had not fully come to recognise my great penchant for something else French – the formality of civic togetherness.

Most public spaces, in Paris at least, are arranged in such a way as to invite and prohibit at the same time. They are designed to bring people together and also keep them apart. You may walk along the alleys, but not sit on the grass. There is a side of me that finds great honesty in this kind of spatial structure; it seems to account for the complexity of coexistence.

I have rarely felt so personally integrated as on an unseasonably warm Sunday when the Cygnet, his Dad and I sat around the great fountain in the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris. There we perched among the Parisians, in all their guises, each of us occupying a single wrought iron chair which we had arranged in random arcs, facing and not facing each other, reading or snoozing or eating, absorbed in ourselves but subconsciously needing one another. The peculiar benefit of this kind of structured togetherness is that one can experience collective belonging in a way which utterly respects, preserves and even requires one’s aloneness.

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Australians are not renown for being comfortable with standing apart. As a nation, we find all manner of ways and days to emphasise a collective character and bat down the notion of people going it alone.

The twenty first century Sydney Swans have been good citizens in that respect. I joined the club in 2000 and have been raised on the mantra of the Bloods – that success comes from the collective will – Brett Kirk’s Holdens over Chris Judd’s Lamborghinis – the old argument about the team of champions or the champion team. At every chance the modern day player reminds us that they are there simply to ‘play their role.’

Last Sunday I left the voting booth for the SCG, where we assembled ourselves up in the O’Reilly. Below us to the left, the Roos supporters were sorting themselves into an opposition camp. As we waited for the siren, I watched the two teams sprint the opposing wings and their jerseys melted into an arrangement of ‘bleu, blanc, rouge‘.

The game was played within the discipline and efficacy of team structure, four quarters of one-on-one contests, most of them lasting the match, some of them truly enticing: Shaw on Harvey, Bird on Wells, Richards on Petrie. And as I sat and observed the nature of the match, what I really saw was how similar a footy team is to a French public park. Because, scripts aside, the ‘team role’ is, in fact, the individual contest. As diligently as players arrange themselves in a structure of togetherness, they take up their positions alone with their capacity. And part of the anticipation and wonder of each match is which individual will shine, who will win his contest, who will break the lines.

On Sunday night, the candidate of choice came on a ballot paper marked JETTA.

All of his goals were unlikely and superb. The first a case of pace taking him to the ball first and stride allowing him to kick it before it went over. The second a grab on the wing in space, a ball sent long and returned by hand and a goal from inside the pocket. The third a pick up from an opposition fumble and a snap from just inside 50. It was a casual display of what commentators mean when they say that a team needs ‘someone to impose themselves.’ Sometimes what’s best for the stability of the umbrella is for everyone to acknowledge that it’s ok to let someone out to do what they alone can do.

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It is possible, even probable, that Nicolas Sarkozy will become the first French President since 1958 to lose the office after a single term. His campaign for ‘La France Forte’ (A Strong France) preaches that prosperity, security and well-being come from strength and that strength comes only from unquestioned unity.

Surely the success of any community, especially a nation, is its ability to manage the tension between belonging and standing apart. After all, the truly successful team has always proven itself as both a champion team and a team of champions.

About Mathilde de Hauteclocque

Swans member since 2000, Mathilde likes to wile away her winters in the O'Reilly stand with 'the boys', flicking through the Record and waiting to see the half backs drive an explosive forward movement. She lives in Sydney and raises a twelve year old Cygnet.

Comments

  1. pamela sherpa says:

    Nice writing Mathilde. I enjoyed reading this.

  2. Richard Naco says:

    Superbe’, Mthilde. Merci.

  3. John Harms says:

    Mathilde, Have spent a little time in the Luxembourg Gardens myself. Always amazes me how geraniums are so much nice in Europe – especially in those gardens and in flower boxes in Salzburg.

    Great win to your boys yesterday. Great win.

  4. Thoughtful piece, Mathilde. Great to see its probably not a nom de plume.
    I could vote for Sarkozy. If the other choices were Gillard and Abbott.
    I saw Lewis Jetta as a young player with Swan Districts. Always exciting. It is a tribute to himself and your club, that they have developed him from sporadically brilliant to consistently good – without coaching the flair and elan’ out of him.
    Acknowledging the vagaries of the fixture, it is interesting that the 2 undefeated teams play the best team football, rather than having star players.
    Looking forward to the Josh Kennedy Cup in July. The loser has to adopt a nom de plume for the next season. Mathilde perhaps?

  5. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    “It was just about doing the job and playing the role.”
    So said Ryan O’Keefe today.

    Peter, I was thinking … perhaps playing the best team football rather than having star players is a result of a more even talent spread. The teams’ quota of star quality is more evenly distributed, so to speak. That and a good strong culture.

    The Josh Kennedy Cup – superb. I would be honoured for ours to use my name. You know it means ‘Mighty Battle Maiden’.

  6. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Pardon!

    I thought the nom de plume was for this year’s Josh Kennedy Cup!
    Mighty Battle Maiden is NOT for losers!

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