The French vote “against”…

Journalist Fred Niel's says the first round of the French election shows France really cared about t

What a surprise! What surprise? Well, there isn’t one. That’s the surprise… No-one was expecting everything to go as predicted in the polls: Nicolas Sarkozy came on top in the first round, and will take on the second-placed Ségolene Royal in the final round of the presidential elections, on the 6th May.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who took on Jacques Chirac in 2002 after pushing aside the Socialists’ Lionel Jospin, lost a million voters; and those who still voted for him were drowned in the sea of French citizens who took part in this election, thanks to an abstention rate of 16%, the lowest since the beginnings of the Fifth Republic. The result: he only got 11% of the votes, against 17% in 2002.

The shock of 2002 pushed many young people, traditionally more prone to abstention, to get their views heard in the polling booths in 2007. For the same reasons, many voters used a “vote utile” immediately, helping those who had a real chance of getting elected – Sarkozy, Royal, or Bayrou – instead of having the pleasure of voting for a “smaller” candidate (the Greens’ Dominique Voynet, for instance, has lost her lustre: only 1.57% of votes for her, compared to 5.25% for the ecologist candidate of 2002, Noel Mamere).

The high turnout proves that the French really cared about these elections. But if so many of them voted, it was often more to oppose a detested candidate, rather than to show enthusiasm for the ideas of someone else. It seemed vital to people to make a stance against a candidate who seemed too dangerous. A strong minority of socialists dislike Ségolene, who they consider barely competent, and too rigid; but they’ve decided to support her to prevent Nicolas Sarkozy, the ultimate bogeyman, from getting through to the Elysée. The vote for Bayrou is also a protest vote: the slogan “neither left nor right”, without quite knowing what would go in their place, contributed to his success. Finally, it’s with Sarkozy that we find a healthy dose of “committed” votes. If many vote for him because they loathe the socialists, for several voters he also embodies, in a positive way, the energy and the willpower which France is seen to lack today.

What now? According to an Ifop poll for the Journal du Dimanche, put together on the Sunday evening after the results were announced, Sarkozy would beat Royal 54% to 46%. That’s partly because many of the “centrist” voters for Bayrou will return to their roots, the right, in the same proportions: 54% of them say they will vote Sarko, 46% Sego. The polls, it turns out, were actually pretty reliable. Will they be this time too? Royal and Sarkozy are going to have an almighty scrap in the next two weeks in order to seduce the centrist electorate. Sarkozy, after seducing far-right votes with rhetoric about immigration and security, claimed on Sunday evening that he dreamed of a “fraternal France”, which would protect the weak. As for Royal, she made it clear she belonged to no “clan” (in other words: the Socialist Party and its old dinosaurs), throwing some coy glances towards the centrists. The battle has only just begun!

Frederic Niel is a French journalist based in Paris, who has worked for Reuters, Phosphore magazine and other news organisations.
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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times