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Vive la France! A holiday with Hollande is true happiness

Well, not even I can stay in London all the time, so I take advantage of a recent windfall and decide to bugger off to Paris for a long weekend with the Beloved. You may wonder what a column whose title implies poverty-induced stasis in London is doing in Paris but I have not been abroad for 19 months and, besides, Paris is a machine for sucking the money out of your wallet and putting it in the hands of waiters and, in my case, bookshops, especially those open-air stalls of bouquinistes lining the Seine. (Best buy: Paul Verlaine, Oeuvres Complètes, three vols, 1949 edition, €24) 

But in the end it is to the cafés and restaurants that my bank account goes to curl up and die. I will return poorer than ever, I promise.

Sacrificial lamb

At Chez Omar, one of those beautifully dilapidated restaurants off the beaten track, shabby with experience rather than neglect, the waiter informs me, with a curious but beguiling mixture of regret and pride, that they never take cards, never. I am too stuffed with couscous to grumble and pull out the last of my banknotes like an agneau. Apropos of nothing in particular, the waiter – let us call him Omar – bringing us our mint tea, tells us (for it is 6 May, election night) that François Hollande has won. 

How he intuits that I might be interested in the result is beyond me. I like fitting into Paris and indeed the Beloved has already observed more than once that I do so very well (as the very photo accompanying these words in the paper version of the magazine attests, I can do a snooty Parisian expression without even trying) but my vocabulary and accent are clearly those of the Anglophone, however much I shrug and pout like a Frenchman. Maybe Omar is simply bursting with the news and has to tell everyone, but his dignified manner does not necessarily bespeak a man who goes around telling his customers election results at the drop of a hat. 

Anyway, as it happens, I am very interested indeed in the result of the elections, and the news that Hollande has won fills me with joy. I shake his hand and caper about like a madman. Ever since the first round, I had been doing the maths and had been unable to see how the combined votes for Sarkozy and Le Pen could still conspire towards a victory for the Socialists. I had not been looking forward to the evening: a win for the repulsive fascist dwarf Sarko would have turned the mood of the city, not to mention my own, ugly. 

Outside, we hear cars and mopeds beeping their horns with even greater frequency than normal. There is a kind of throbbing in the air. A moped carrying two middle-aged men slows down by us and the driver confirms what Omar has already told us. I punch the air in salute. This really is extraordinarily good news. 

Long experience of the city tells me where to go. We are within easy walking distance of the Bastille and so I suggest we head in that direction. “There’ll probably be some sort of celebration.” 

You could say that. We turn into the rue Saint-Antoine and join a thickening crowd of celebrants. There are chants, flags, people leaning out of windows and waving; we all wave back. Even the flashing lights of the police vans seem carnivalesque, a contribution to the communal delight rather than a counterpoint. As we approach the Place de la Bastille I tell the Beloved that maybe she should put her glasses on. She is not that shortsighted – but shortsighted enough, perhaps, not to be able to distinguish the crowds of people who seem somehow to be encrusting the central pillar up to half its height. We are about 50, perhaps 60 yards from it, but the crowd is now so dense that we’re not going to be able to get any closer. 

What a liberté

Have you ever been in an enormous mob of Parisians delighting in the fall of a right-wing government? I can warmly recommend it. I am not normally a fan of crowds; a crowd in this country, unless it is at a demonstration or cricket match, is something to be distrusted. But to see nearly a quarter of a century of frustration – the Fifth Republic has not elected a socialist president since 1988 – being deliriously swept aside in a spontaneous act of mass ecstasy, is to be uplifted to the point of tears. 

And Hollande is there! There is a stage, with a sound system, and he makes a speech both sonorous and intimate. Words like “liberté”, “égalité” and “fraternité” sound, once again, as though they actually mean something. He uses the “S” word! (“socialisme.”) He looks a little like John Lanchester! (This is a Good Thing.) I want, very badly now, to live in a Republic. 

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 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food