Schizophrenie Francaise

Une Anglo-Saxonne A Paris

Monday, 7 May 2007

Sarkozy President

Two France's tonight greeted the news that Sarkozy is their new president. There was the 53 percent who voted for him, symbolised by the dancing happy crowds gathered in Place de la Concorde for the offcial celebrations, and the 47 percent who didn't, some of whom could be seen charging police on Place de la Bastille.
'Is there anything particularly French about these two reactions?' Herve Beroud, editor in chief of RTL radio, asked me during his election night show.
My first reaction was that two groups of people were just expressing their respective emotions. Yet the fact that they expressed themselves in the street - which under the Fifth Republic is the only place to question the president - is perhaps specifically French. Sarkozy promised to make the president more responsible, at least to the parliament and the press. Let's see what happens.
My evening began chez Segolene at the Maison de l'Amerique Latine.

When the result was announced, there was a few seconds of total silence, followed by a few whistles. How to react? Quickly a few supporters - among them stars such as Emmanuelle Beart - began chanting 'Bravo Segolene.' The crowd began clapping, and the Bravos and Thank Yous got louder.
Suddenly she was there on the stage. Her radiant smile was not that of a loser. She let the bravos wash over her for a few minutes, before descending into the crowd to thank everyone. When she spoke, she accepted defeat graciously.
'Universal suffrage has spoken,' she said in her trademark white dress, twinned with a cream jacket. Then she moved on.
'You can count on me to continue the profound renewal of the left,' she said to cheers. 'It's the condition of our future victories.'
Some people were crying. Most were defiant. Few of the people I spoke to in Segolene's first base, including Pierre Berge, former Creative Director of Yves St Laurent Group, were members of the Socialist party. They signed up to this campaign because they believed in Segolene (sorry DSK, who was offering his services as the Socialist Reformer on television stations).
'We will reconstruct and we will fight,' said Kykie Alcove, 26. a teaching assistant from the Paris region and member of the youth support group Segosphere. 'She represents a renewal of politics. Politicians who are concerned with everyday life. Her problem? Perhaps she didn't have enough time.'
In the gardens below, the stars and militants drank wine. Not champagne.
Will Segolene stick around for a shake-up of the Socialist party? Christophe Chantepy, her chief of staff, told me she intends to remain a prominent figure on the political landscape.
'With the Socialists?' I asked. `We will see. Today is for thanking the supporters. Tomorrow is another day.'

Segolene was accompanied by cheers on her short walk to party HQ at Rue Solferino. This was not the atmosphere of the losing team after a football match. She was smiling. People were smiling. Bravo, bravo. Next time.
I left the Socialists around 10 to go to RTL to give the Scottish view on the French elections. Cycling towards the studios I saw a man jogging by the Seine, unmoved by the celebrations on place de la Concorde. When I arrived, television cameras showed Sarkozy taking a break from his responsibilities only a few hours into his job. To the surprise of the media cavalcade accompanying him, he stopped at a restaurant near the Champs Elysee for dinner with a close circle of friends. Sure, he needs to celebrate. But tonight is a public night. Could he not have waited for tomorrow?
When he finally showed up at the party in his name, he gave Faudel, the singer keeping the crowd chaud, a big hug.
He asked the crowd to be 'tolerant' and 'fraternal,' and show 'an image of a united France that doesn't leave anyone at the side of the road.'
There were rumours that he might finish the evening in a nightclub.
I cycled home past the Elysee palace where the Chiracs' sleep would have been disturbed by the party at Place de la Concorde. On the ride home there was a odd toot of the horn, and several bars were full, but otherwise the atmosphere was strangely lacking. Perhaps it was happening elsewhere. There was less emotion that aftre the World Cup, understandable in a country that loves football. But this is France, and with an 85 percent turnout, you'd think politics was king.
As I zipped past the tramp asleep over the metro air vent, I wondered whether he is aware he has a new president, And whether he cares. And whether it will make a difference to him.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Is France Ready for Change?

Voting day today for two candidates promising change. At the same time, both are promising to maintain the status quo.
The man polls suggest most likely to win declares grandiloquently he will enact bold and dramatic change, quietly followed by a meek retreat to more consensual policies. He calls the 35-hour working week a 'general catostrophe.' Then he says he will keep it. The government has added one-million bureaucrats since Mitterrand in 1992, he says. Yet his enthusiasm for a roll-back of the state is tempered to a gentle non-replacement promise of one retiring civil servant in two. No debate over which services need more investment, and which ones need to be cut. Sarkozy may be hailed as the most market friendly candidate, but the French social model is safe in his hands. His program is full of subsidies and short of spending cuts. Normal perhaps in an election, but the national debt isn't going to shrink under this platform.
Nor have the Socialists come up with an answer. Despite having shaken up her party (she has done more in six months than the previous 15 years according to sociologist Loic Wacquant writing in Liberation yesterday), Segolene is hampered by an entrenched us-verus-them attitude among her supporters. Anyone who criticises is considered a traitor. Anyone who points out that things could be done better is given the cold shoulder.
The left 'needs to accept the confrontation of ideas,' Segolene's special advisor Julian Dray told RFI radio yesterday after La Candidate went a bid mad in an RTL interview, suggesting an Armageddon stype situation if Sarkozy is elected. He said he is not 'one of those who consider that Nicolas Sarkozy is a threat to the French Republic and tomorrow we will have to form a resistance.'
Sarkozy puts it like this (in an interview with France Inter four days ago):
'The French left has this fantastic idea that anyone who does not share exactly their ideas is illegitimate. If I am not in agreement with them, I am brutal. I am a danger for democracy for the sole reason that I do not have leftwing ideas.'
A fairly healthy, if a little limpid, economy has helped France avoid difficult choices about how to adapt to a changing world. If its leaders avoid a real discussion, then the country is just one recession away from being forced to face up to it.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Can Women Play Chess?

Tonight's long awaited and much-hyped televised debate - the only head-to-head of the campaign - was organised like a chess match. The mis-en-scene was dominated by four concave plastic triangles at the end of which was a giant counter. Segolene, Sarkozy and the presenters PPDA and Arlette Chabot sat at the other sides. All around them were images of the Elysee palace.
French law requires each candidate speaks for an exactly equal period of time - and it quickly became clear that PPDA and Arlette's main concern was watching the counter to ensure Segolene didn't overspeak. Forget the quality of debate or good TV, what mattered was the seconds. When it came to conclude, Segolene had a three minute lead over Sarkozy. He generously allowed her to keep some of his time.
The debate itself - two hours and fourty minutes - was not uninteresting and 20 million viewers tuned in. Segolene was a little shrill, dressed authoritatively in a black suit with a white shirt and on the attack from the outset. Sarkozy was Mr. Relax. Playing the perfect gentleman, he was unmoved by her emotional outburts to which he calmly responded point by point. Typically, she was unable to justify how she would finance her generous projects, promising vaguely a tax on share transactions to cover the burgeoning pension bill. Still she managed to catch Sarkozy out a couple of times, and succeeded in her aim of coming across as a strong woman.
The spiciest bit came when Segolene whipped herself up into a lather over the treatment of handicapped children in schools. Sarkozy, who reputedly struggles with controlling his temper, told her to cool it.
'To be President of the Rpublic, you have to be calm.'
'No I won't calm down. This is a justified anger,' she declared righteously.
Disappointingly, there was no big debate of ideas, rather a squabble over details and competence.
The most disappointing part came at the end however, when Segolene told France why they should vote for her.
'I know that for some of you, it's not evident to think a woman can take on the highest responsibility.' Comparing herself to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she said: 'I think it's possible.'
At this stage in the game, the sex of the candidate should not be an issue. If a woman can be as competent as a man, which I strongly believe to be the case, there should be no need to appeal for voters to pick you just because you are not a man.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

May 1: Segomania

The Charlety stadium in Southern Paris was litterally overflowing with Segolene supporters when I arrived for her last big public meeting. People were scaling the fences and vaulting into the grounds while nervous security personel looked on helpless. Fearing a crush, the organisers appealed to the prefecture and closed the gates, prompting an outcry and a lot of pushing and shoving. It took me over an hour to get past the security at the press entrance, where journalists were being allowed in one by one.
'I hope she runs her country better than this,' remarked one colleague. He was one of the polite ones.
Inside, Socialists blamed foul play by the interior ministry for deliberate lack of crowd control.
Around 40,000 supporters madde it into the stadium, leaving 20,000 outside. Segolene won then, beating the measly 20,000 UMP supporters who showed up on Sunday to cheer on Sarkozy at his final meeting in the Bercy concert hall. Had they turned up for a free concert with rock stars Yannick Noah, Benabar, Indochine, and Les Tetes Raides? You might have thought so when Segolene arrived in her trademark white suit, twinned with an orange t-shirt (trying to reach out to Bayrou supporters?). She had hardly begun her speech, when she was drowned out by 'Segolene, president' and 'we are going to win.' But like so often, she appeared unable to harness and channel this energy. Instead of urging the holidaymakers to enjoy the concert, she started to talk politics, prompting a small exodus. People, many of whom were rally virgins, may have got bored. They might also have got fed up with the mediocre sound system which made it almost impossible to make out what she was saying most of the time.
'The Socialists always try to do things on the cheap and it shows,' said one colleague.
Segolene was best when she picked up on the whiff of the '68 that Sarkozy tried to crush last week.
In his speech at Bercy he claimed 'everything is the fault of May 68,' Segolene said. 'He got stung by which fly? Because May 68, it was 40 years ago!' She accused him of wanting to create a 68-style revolt, giving him the excuse to crush it. She told the crowd, where several rainbow flags were flying, that she stands for peace. And flashed her radiant smile.

May 1: Another World

A completely different Labour day festival was taking place a few metro stops from Place de l'Opera and the National Front. Long haired hippies danced with sympathisers of Sri Lanka's Tamils and Zapatsitas in Che Guevara t-shirts as an enourmous march led by the CGT union left Place de la Republique. The Turkish unions made a lot of noise protesting against imperialism, racism and many other things besides. 'Vive le Maxisme, Leninisme,' read one poster. Young people distributed Trotskyiste newsletters, and I bumped into my friend from Olivier Besancenot's rally who occupying a Canadian factory to protest job cuts. Lutte Ouvriere stickers urged proletarians of all countries to unite. Communists of all colours were out in force, and capitalists were clearly not welcome.
'Together, let's fight neoliberalism,' read another banner.
Banners urged the end to genetically modified foods with the marvellous phrase: 'Les Vaches Folles du capital: Ne Soyons Pas Les Veaux.'
There was a distinct whiff of rebellion in the air, tamed only by the faint smell of cannabis. Was there anything that united this disparate and international group? Despite a deliberate lack of political direction from the unions, stickers urging 'Stop Sarko' decorated the bottoms of pretty girls and the chests of bearded men the length and breadth of the march.
'Anti-Sarko, it's in my genes,' read one poster, a reference to his belief that homosexuality and depression are hereditary.
There is something quite charming about the other-wordliness of the march, whose slogans seemed to belong to another era. And something quite remarkable about the number of people of all ages and colours who showed up (60,000 according to the CGT, 25,000 according to the police). Being labour day, it did have one thing in common with the National Front march. Street sellers offered the same lilly-of-the-valley that decorated Le Pen's botton hole, and marchers from both events sought sustenance in the form of barbequed sausage.

May 1: Manhandled by the FN

I began my May 1 paying hommage to Joan of Arc, together with several thousand National Front supporters. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the atmosphere was charged as the recently defeated Jean Marie Le Pen arrived, sporting lilly-of-the-valley in his button hole, for the Front's annual ceremony. The crowd was a noxious mix of war veterans sporting rows of medals set off by berets and flags, old ladies in pearls and heavy mascara, and skinheads. The heavies from Front's own security service, the DPS, glared menacingly at the crowd which they were iin charge of controlling as they marched to the Opera.
Still, I was quite enjoying myself -- until I was manhandled by Alain Vizier, Le Pen's director of communications. Directed by members of the DPS inside the cordon protecting Le Pen's cortege, I was happily chatting with some of the veterans such as Michel Bayuet, a regional councillor for the Yvelines suburb, who had two youths ejected from the march for refusing to remove the headscarves that were obscuring part of their faces.
'It's a provocation,' the charming grand-father told me. 'They are skinheads. They come to our meetings only to cause trouble.'
Then I spied Vizier, who I had met at a dinner a few months back, smiled at him and made my way over to say hello.
'Get out of here,' he yelled at me. 'You have been here for half an hour. Get out, get out.'
'Ok I am going,' I said rather taken aback. ' I just wanted to ask you how many people are on the march.'
'Get out,' he said.
'You can't tell me how many people are here?'
'Au revoir,' he said, gabbing my arm and pushing me away from him. 'You work for which media? American I presume?'
I nodded. He was hurting my arm. 'That doesn't surprise me.'
Shocked, I started to write down his insults as I made my way out of the cortege. Once outside I stood for a few seconds, scribbling furiously. He ran over to me, thrusting his card in my face. 'Voila. So you know who I am.'
'I know who you are,' I replied. 'We had dinner together.'
He pushed his card down the front of my shirt and returned to his place in front of Jean-Marie.
I had seen more courtesy from the skinheads.
'He must be jumpy about the result,' journalists who usually follow Le Pen told me. 'He's not normally like that.'

Le Pen supporters mostly blamed Sarkozy for stealing a million voters from Le Pen, reducing his score to 10 percent in last Sunday's elections. Some blamed Marine for softening the party line, appealing beyond the traditional party base to the children of immigrants.
'He's better paying attention to people who are French by blood rather than people who are French through immigration,' said Gaetan Heneman, 21, a labourer from Dunkirk who had travelled to Paris on his own for the ceremony.
'A nice National Front voter doesn't interest anyone,' an elderly gentleman told me.
Marine, the butt of most of this criticism, brushed off the nay-sayers who she claimed 'are the chewing gum that has been stuck to our heels for years.'
Loyalty to Le Pen remained high. The crowd waited eagerly for instruction in how to vote for the second round.
'We are not sheep, we are faithful,' said one young man from the Midi Pyrenees. 'We will do what he tells us to do.'
His advice was largely anticipated. 'We want Le Pen not Sarkozy. Jean-Marie not Segolene,' the crowds chanted.
Le Pen gave them what they wanted, urging his supporters to 'abstain massively' from Sunday's vote.

`Le Pen holds the key to the election,' said Jean-Marc Lech, co-Chairman of polling company Ipsos. 'Nothing would be worse for Sarkozy if the le Pen voters don't go out to vote.' He said the Le Pen voters who decamped to Sarkozy were the wealthy, leaving Jean-Marie with a more obedient core of support.

Monday, 30 April 2007

The door to Eastern Europe opens a crack

As the U.K. fills up with migrant Polish workers (prompting some towns to put up road signs in Polish to prevent lost lorry drivers reversing into their cabbage patches - and my cousin to consider changing her name to Vandorski to improve her chances of finding a job), France is planning to crack the door a little further open to the newest members of the EU.
Les Echos reported the government is extending the list of professions seeking Eastern European workers, stressing that the jobs are not only 'non qualified and unattractive.' Engine mechanics, electricians, chefs and computer professionals figure on the new list of jobs where demand is greater than supply. Plumbers, despite the shocking prices demanded in Paris, were not on the list for obvious reasons, given the election is only days away.
A latent admission perhaps, that given its aging population France will rely on immigrant labour to pay the future pensions of its workforce? Not likely. Restrictions won't be fully removed until 2011 when everyone will be used to the exotic sound of Eastern European accents on the street. Curious timing though, this annoucement...