On a Métro heading west from Bonne Nouvelle in the centre of Paris, the Saturday-afternoon travellers were unusually talkative, their querulous tones rising above the clanking coupling. There was only one subject of conversation: the first round of the French presidential election, due to be held the following day. Then there came a stench of soured wine and stale cigarette smoke as a homeless couple worked their way through the compartment, politely soliciting for “a little donation, if you please, ladies and gentlemen . . .” At least one passenger complied and the homeless woman wished him “a good weekend”, before reflecting aloud, “If it’s possible with this election tomorrow. Not that we’re going to know the result: there are no televisions for us homeless people to watch.” Maybe not; but that didn’t stop these particular Parisians from having their own opinions, as her bibulous companion then demonstrated by chiming in: “It’ll be Macron and Le Pen going through to the next round – you’ll see.”
All over Paris the campaign posters had been defaced; Marine Le Pen’s blonde coif customised with devil’s horns, François Fillon’s patrician visage either labelled “Voleur!” (“thief”) or proleptically provided with the prison bars many would like to see him behind and captioned: “En prison!” Perhaps the most telling example of what the Situationists called détournement was a poster I saw for François Asselineau, whose slogan “Le candidat du Frexit” had been adapted to read “Le candidat du frottis” (“candidate for the smear test”). Of course, Paris is the city that gave birth to a certain maximally vulgar kind of political satire, but this equation between an independent right-wing candidate without a sorbet’s chance in Hades of going forward to the second round and a potentially infected intimate part seemed an accurate – if obscene – summation of the French electorate’s disgust with the country’s political class.
For the last few weeks of the campaign, at dinner and café tables, on Métros and in offices, the French had been bemoaning their lot. In 2002 the second round ended up being a run-off between Jacques Chirac (“the crook”) and Marine Le Pen’s wayward father, Jean-Marie (“the fascist”); but one Parisian friend described the front-running candidates for Sunday’s vote to me as the Fascist, the Communist, the Corruptionist and the Opportunist. Commentators from across the Channel persist in viewing what is happening in France through our own constitutional lens – and in some ways, the sovereigntist position of Le Pen’s Front National can be equated with the hazy monarchical reveries of right-wing Tories and quondam Ukippers: all of them seeing a brave old world arise from the ashes of the second great wave of globalisation.
But while evidence of the United Kingdom’s fissiparous condition lies in a moulting Celtic fringe, the centralised and ideologically monolithic nature of the French state is such that rapid political change usually results in radical découpage. The British media’s other inclination is to equate this election with our Brexit referendum; but the sense of discombobulation which accompanied that vote has already been made real in France, where the institutional embedding of the main political parties was never as secure to begin with, and their support has been ebbing away for decades.
No, the problem with the first round was that if the opinion polls could be believed, the front-runners were representative of current French political passions – or, rather, lack of them. Because, when it came to which bulletin they were going to choose in the bureau de vote, faute de mieux was the guiding principle for almost everyone I spoke to. And surely that little peculiarity of French electoral practice is as indicative of the national character as any irredentism. Rather than put a mark next to the name of their preferred candidate, French voters take slips of paper with the individual names pre-printed on them, together with an envelope, then repair to the voting booth, where making their selection in effect consists of sending a very short billet-doux to Marianne, or la Patrie. It’s as if – like a nation of latter-day Lacloses – they were enacting a mass political version of an epistolary novel, their liaisons dangereuses being with destiny itself.
Not that anything appeared that dramatic on Sunday morning at Bureau de Vote Numéro 33 in the tenth arrondissement. This is a working-class area of Paris with a substantial Turkish immigrant population, but in the past couple of decades, in common with all other big western European cities, it has slowly submerged in a rising tide of frothy coffee – an inundation unfelt by the still more recent migrants who sleep rough
on the streets surrounding the Gare du Nord and who, on cold mornings last winter, actually lit fires on the pavement to keep warm.
While my friend went in to vote, I loitered outside. Exit polls are not allowed and the count begins when the first bulletin is posted, so results can often be announced extremely quickly, giving even the most tawdry choice a certain éclat. I scanned posters pinned up in the vestibule; most of the time Bureau Numéro 33 is a nursery school and it seems that even very small children need to be reminded of the values of the state: one was a Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, the other a stentorian reminder that “la République est laïque”. The Republic may well be secular – yet when the results of the first round came in that evening, many electors must have offered up a prayer in gratitude: the run-off would be between the Fascist and the Opportunist, rather than the Communist or the Corruptionist. As for the real candidate for a smear test – that remains the entire French body politic and not just François Asselineau, who gained a mere 0.9 per cent of the popular vote.
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On