As the polls began to close at about seven o’clock on Sunday evening, there was a distinctly weird atmosphere in the streets of Paris. It was about then that you could sense François Hollande had made it at last. All day, activists had been building the stage set at the Place de la Bastille – historical rallying point of the left – where Hollande was to meet the party faithful, in victory or defeat. But as the hour of the result drew nearer, it was
as if everybody knew that he had won and they wanted to get to la Bastille to celebrate.
In my part of southern Paris, shops and cafés on the normally busy rue Daguerre began to empty out. As if responding to some secret signal, groups of young people and even entire families made their way north towards la Bastille by Metro or on foot, loaded with flags and packs of beer.
All the talk was of 1981, the year of the historic victory by François Mitterrand that put the left into power for the first time since the Second World War. The party that followed was certainly worthy of that first triumph.
When Hollande finally arrived at the Bastille at one o’clock in the morning, amid the drinking, dancing and all-round mayhem, the throng greeted him with a roar of acclamation that must have surprised this decent, modest and kindly man.
But now that the party is over, and as the euphoria fades into bleary-eyed reality, Paris is quickly waking up to what it might mean to have a new president. Most notably, hard questions are being asked about who has been the ultimate victor in this contest. More to the point, the shrewdest commentators have noted that two short weeks ago Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, was hosting her own party, this time to celebrate the advances made by the FN in the first round of elections. This, too, was a euphoric affair – the YouTube clip of Le Pen making shapes to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” makes this clear in the most hilarious if slightly sinister way.
But the FN’s celebrations weren’t about merely making its presence felt in France: they were about taking power. The FN’s 20 per cent share of the vote in the first round – which corresponded roughly to the level of abstentions in the second round on 6 May – established it as potentially the most significant force in French politics. This is no less important than Hollande’s victory.
Indeed, no one will have been more pleased with Hollande’s victory than Le Pen. Her target all along was Nicolas Sarkozy and, most importantly, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), which he represents. It is all too easily forgotten that this party is a fragile coalition of centre-right and liberal groups that was put together in 2002 with the express aim of ensuring that the right had a permanent grasp of the French presidency. Now that this has slipped, the coalition’s very existence is being called into question. In the past week, the most prominent figures in the UMP, François Fillon and Jean-François Copé, have been quick to reassure voters that there will be no bataille des chefs – no public falling-out and disarray. But the reality is that Sarkozy’s failure (he is the first president since 1981 not to win a second term) is a huge humiliation for the UMP. The anger and recriminations have already begun, but the more pressing question is how long the UMP can stay together as the FN advances upon its electorate.
It is the potential vacuum on the centre right that is most important to Le Pen. For one thing, it now allows her to go eyeball to eyeball with Hollande over the critical issues of immigration, unemployment and the eurozone. In the past few years, Le Pen has either jettisoned or buried the skinheads and neo-Nazis who used to cluster around the FN. Her new rhetoric is about freedom and the independent identity of France. Her speech after the results of the first round on 22 April was a masterclass in manipulation; sounding like a female de Gaulle, invoking the language of the French Resistance, she said she was ready for a new “Battle for France” – a war against the metropolitan elite, of right and left, who are untouched by the economic crisis.
It would be hard to find a more concentrated portrait of Le Pen’s stated enemy than the cream of the French political classes that stood beside Hollande on the platform on Sunday night. Nearly all of them, including his ex-wife, the haughty Ségolène Royal, are products of the École Nationale d’Administration in Paris. These elite technocrats will never speak for the people, Le Pen says.
She also argues, as do many more moderate voices, that Hollande is doomed to failure, and believes that the first test of this will be the legislative elections in June. If she is right, then surely French political life is not standing at the crossroads, as the received wisdom has it, but staring into the abyss.
Andrew Hussey is the author of “Paris: the Secret History” (Penguin, £10.99)