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How many points do you get for the word "scandale"?
A sidelight scandale flared in France this week after a deputy in the French National Assembly was shown playing Scrabble on his iPad during the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage.
Among the words that could be deciphered in photographs were "gache," which is French for wasted, and "mufle," which is cad or oaf.
The Scrabble player, Deputy Thomas Thevenoud, was as unapologetic as a French politician caught with a mistress, telling Le Parisien newspaper that he was part of a group of legislators who played the word game as debate rumbled on.
"I confirm that we were trying to keep our brain cells working at 3 in the morning," declared Mr. Thevenoud. "When we manage to get 102 points at 3 in the morning, I wouldn't say we are proud of our achievements, but it does reassure us somewhat."
Another deputy, Jerome Guedj, tweeted from the Assembly floor that he sometimes plays Scrabble, reads a newspaper and phones his plumber because drawn-out debates drift and drone into what he called "endless amendments" and "pointless discussions."
"The English can vote on marriage for all in just two days," he complained, "while we take 10 days over nothing."
By the way, the French National Assembly ultimately voted to approve same-sex marriage, 249 to 97.
The exposed Scrabbling deputies were members of the Socialist Party, which sits on the left of the chamber. Meanwhile, Marc Le Fur, a member of the more conservative Union for a Popular Movement, which sits on the right, tweeted a photo of Thomas Thevenoud with the message, "Gay marriage, adoption, and surrogacy, this MP decides the fate of French children."
Tourists who see the U.S. Congress in session are often astonished to discover representatives signing notes, thumbing emails, looking for their names in newspapers and seeming to more or less ignore their colleague who is speaking on the floor, the way you might overlook a man on a New York subway train who's shouting something about the Mayan apocalypse.
Covering any parliamentary debate might help you understand why a legislator's attention could drift. The issues are important and urgent. The legislation proposed is often intricate — even a bill to install a traffic light can be packed with clauses and codicils. But there is rarely any mystery. Debates in legislative bodies these days aren't exchanges to change minds so much as set speeches to fire up people who already agree with you.
Playing Scrabble while you wait to vote the way you know you will might seem a little flippant. But why not encourage legislators to knit something while they sit and wait? By the time they cast their vote, they could make a scarf!