Paris - The French may be keener than ever to follow the presidential campaign on the Internet, but when it comes to voting, the most widely trusted technology here is still the traditional paper ballot and envelope.

Over a million French voters are due to use electronic voting machines in a presidential election for the first time this month, prompting fears among opposition parties and the public that the ballot will be distorted.

The interior ministry has approved three models of voting machine, and mayors around the country have chosen to invest in the expensive devices, arguing that they will save time, effort and, in the long run, money.

But thousands of voters are concerned the machines are not fully secure or reliable. They point to controversies in Ireland, the Netherlands and the hotly disputed 2000 US presidential vote.

"Citizens can no longer verify the good conduct of elections. They are not capable of understanding what happens in the polling station," said Pierre Muller of website, whose petition against the use of the machines has been signed by 68,253 people.

Another site, has filed a complaint with an administrative court, saying machines used in a Paris suburb differ from those approved by the interior ministry.

In the leafy Paris suburb of Chatenay-Malabry, Mayor Georges Siffredi, of right-wing presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, proudly shows off his new machines.

"They are simple calculating machines. They don't even give percentages. They simply add up, so I don't see what particular problems there could be," he said during a recent visit.

The use of electronic voting machines was approved in 2004 with little controversy or public debate. Roughly 1.5 million of France's 44.5 million voters are due to cast their vote on April 22 and May 6 in polling stations equipped only with machines.

But in recent weeks, opposition parties have voiced doubts.

Of the three parties whose candidates are favourites to win this spring's presidential election, two have called for a moratorium on the machines' use, as have smaller parties.

"There are symbols and rituals that are vital to us. The democratic ritual is fundamental," said Vincent Feltesse of the Socialist party, referring to the traditional system of paper ballots and envelopes.


Voting machines have met controversy before.

In the Netherlands, where roughly 90 per cent of votes are cast by machine, a group called "We do not trust voting computers" last year demonstrated technical flaws in the most widely used model, made by Dutch firm Nedap.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a leading authority on election monitoring, said in a report on the subsequent November parliamentary elections that the government responded swiftly and safeguards were introduced.

Ireland shelved its 52m euro ($70.7m) electronic voting system in 2004 amid controversy over its reliability, with the government setting up an independent commission to test its accuracy and confidentiality.

Nedap made those machines and about 80 per cent of those that will be used in France, which are similar to those that sparked controversy in the Netherlands last year.

Critics say the devices should print a paper ballot, which can be checked by the voter and stored for a possible recount. Instead, votes are stored in the machine's memory, and the result is printed out when the polling station closes.

In its Dutch report, the OSCE said machines should have a paper trail to increase public confidence in the system.

Herve Palisson, who heads Nedap's French election unit, said the machines were reliable and a paper trail would open the door to frivolous challenges: "As the vote is secret, someone can very easily say 'no, the machine didn't print what I voted' and you can't verify it."

Mayor Siffredi, who bought 17 machines at roughly 4,000 euros each, said the benefits were tangible.

"There are fewer and fewer scrutinisers. I have better things to do than to cry all day asking people if they can come in the evening. It's crazy. It's the same in every town and it's getting worse," he said, a claim the Socialists dispute.

Source: Reuters