May Day and Muguets

TLS, May 3rd, 2017

Revolution drifting through the spring air


Last Sunday was sunny and warm, full of promise, a perfect spring day. The market in the town where I live just west of Paris was overflowing with people and produce, the florists’ stalls piled high with pots of muguets, lily of the valley, whose tiny scented white bells are a symbol of both old France and May 1, still known here as Workers’ Day.

The French are traditionally ferocious in their defence of workers’ rights, and the presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is ritually attacked on Left and Right for the law reform that bears his name, which opponents claim sells workers down the river in favour of shareholders and profit. (In reality it’s a mild reform that loosened various monopolies, including those of intercity coach companies, and decreed that shops could open on Sunday as long as those working in them were paid double.) I chatted as usual to the Tunisian-born maraicher where I usually buy my fruit and vegetables, and timidly mentioned that I hoped that he was planning to vote next week. “Who for?”, he answered with a smile. “Against Le Pen”, I said, hesitantly, slightly offended that he had to ask. His broad grin reassured me. “Ne vous inquiétez pas, madame. Toute l’équipe va voter contre Le Pen.” (“Don’t worry, madame. The whole team is going to be voting against Le Pen.”)

Just as we saw with Brexit, something unpleasant has been let out of the mouldy cellar where it has long been lurking. It used to be said that people were ashamed to admit to a vote for the Front National. No longer. My sixteen-year-old son’s maths tutor, the daughter of Portuguese immigrants, told her class that she would be voting for Marine Le Pen. The parents of several of my children’s classmates will be too, according to their offspring. A British friend’s seventeen-year-old son is an enthusiastic fan of both Farage and Le Pen (fortunately, he can’t vote yet). These are all people who are comfortably off, certainly not the disenfranchised working classes. For the middle and educated classes a vote for the FN is no longer a badge of shame, but a defiant bras d’honneur.

In a column in Le Monde this week, the historian of fascism Zeev Sternhell pointed out an uncomfortable truth: “Every time a far right movement comes out of the woodwork in Europe, bringing with it awful memories, there is a great temptation to see it somehow as accidental, an unfortunate mishap. But the reality is that, ever since Boulanger and the Dreyfus Affair, not to mention the far right movements of the 1930s, Vichy and its racial laws, and the Front National, we are reminded that France has a tendency to swing from accidental mishap to accidental mishap. The truth is that France has produced not one but two diametrically opposed political traditions, each as French as the other”. None of my friends will be casting a vote for Le Pen, but many voted for the far Left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round and are furious at the idea of voting for Macron next Sunday. Some will abstain or vote blanc, nullifying their ballot paper in protest. In vain people try to explain that this will only help Le Pen. There is definitely a feeling of revolution in the air, and no doubt some on the Left rejoice at the prospect of taking to the streets to protest their new president, whoever wins.

The truth will be sadder, and quieter, I think. If, as the polls still claim he will, Macron does win, the likelihood is that little will change. Any reforms that he tries to implement, particularly to the 3,000-page labour code, will be blocked in parliament, where he will be very unlikely to have a majority. Strikes will paralyse the country until he backs down. He will only be able to implement the most watered-down reforms, leading to the charge that he is just another useless out-of-touch president maintaining the status quo. The alternative scenario, in which Le Pen wins, is far more frightening. The divisions that have become so marked in this country will deepen. The tendency towards casual violence that is already a feature of French life – 40,000 cars are destroyed by fires set for fun every year – will certainly become even more marked. How increased social unrest would play out with an authoritarian president in charge can only be guessed at.

On that soft spring Sunday it was hard to imagine that the old order, however imperfect, might be just a few days from collapse. Walking home from the market, past hoardings displaying defaced posters of the two candidates, I felt a rush of love for my adopted home. Like so many others, I am reduced to praying that France will reject its ignoble political tradition and live up to its noble heritage. Vive la France. Vive la République. Vive l’Europe.