The French voted yesterday and, one hopes, got over the collective frisson they engaged in for much of the past six months, combining it with a national exercise of you-stink-I-hate-you group therapy. They needed to get it done before having a real break down, and get on with being French.
And so they did, giving a decisive win to Emmanuel Macron, the candidate of the ad-hoc En Marche! (“Let’s Move!”) formation. With his trouncing of National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, many observers in the U.S., too, now can get over the delusion they worked themselves into of a populist, nationalist, identity-based, anti-globalist internationale getting a boost in what is, after all, the world’s fifth economy, still an important military force in the world, and obviously key to such institutions as NATO and the European Union.
The center held, as Macron, who will be the eighth president of the Fifth Republic and, at 39, the youngest, rolled over a lady who, maligned, one might almost say libeled, as a “fascist” could not convince her compatriots that she had a credible program to protect France from the world’s woes, let alone the terrorist onslaught that has cost France and neighboring countries hundreds of lives in just the past two years. Locking the doors, closing the frontiers, is akin to the notion that gun control solves the murder epidemic in Chicago. If she wanted to be the Tough-on-Terror candidate, she should, and could, have referred to precedents in her own family history to suggest how to do it, but she did not.
And how could she? By blaming foreigners for problems of the country’s own making, she strained the limits of voters’ disbelief. Her position was echoed by the left-wing candidate of la France insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who substituted class warfare for identity politics. It was a massive case of what the French call a “psychodrama,” wherein fantasies and historical play-acting replace real life. It might have been better had they merely opted to sit in the Cafe du Commerce and talk about football. But then they would have made light of their civic duty.
French insecurity, which finds many outlets — rage, sanctimony, limousine leftism, impotent nationalism, archaic sloganeering, and gastrointestinal malaises — is, withal, real. France has problems, as do most big old nation-states. But France was made, Charles de Gaulle dixit, with mighty swords. Throwing up one’s hands at the hassles of contemporary life does not make them disappear. The question is, as always: hide behind shutters, or come out swinging. The putative rebel candidacies of Le Pen and Mélenchon were exercises in shadow boxing.
Such political theater depended on taking a kind of tortured satisfaction in misery. But the question occurs: If things are so bad, why do people still try to make it here? Personally I am always partial to an ancient Yiddish nugget, Men ist azoy wie Gott in Frankreich (Happy as God in France). Where else but Paris will you find excellent public tennis courts circling the municipal line and available to you, the jock, for a mere ten dollars an hour?
The fee is sometimes less: no one is waiting to play and the gardien, park service guard, is of a mood to forget the exact hour you and the pretty girl got on. He is usually a taciturn fella from Guadeloupe or Martinique who reminds you of Toussaint l’Ouverture with his disciplined and proud bearing and pressed blue uniform. But he is a man of order, not of island revolts. His mood may be testy — the absence of Caribbean cooking hurts, and maybe he lives in a modest housing project in Clichy-sous-Bois, just outside the city, which often means treacherous neighbors, unpleasant and smelly buildings, long commutes. My experience though is that it helps to have a pretty girl along, cheers him up and distracts from complicated dilemmas about rule-stickling versus welcoming the visitor, foreign or domestic.
Gotta hand it to Paris in the month of May.
Paris is Macron’s bastion. He won a big landslide, dominated the large cities, and Paris took the lead. The French middle and upper middle classes, which are mainly urban, vote for the center parties, and with the collapse of the conservative center, Macron, a minister in the outgoing center-left government, had little difficulty filling the space.
Thanks largely to the false alarms raised about a “fascist” threat from the National Front, it was not difficult, indeed, to play the role of the reasonable centrist. As it happens, the role corresponded to what we saw of Macron when he was Economy Minister in the late, failed Socialist François Hollande administration.
But it is unfortunate that the whole election had a phoniness to it, as if the French political establishment and the media preferred to stage a drama based on irrelevant old political delusions than ask the candidates to do their jobs and propose visions for the coming years.
Given Hollande’s modest approval ratings (between four and six percent, which is what the official Socialist candidate got in the first round), the Républicain (mainstream conservative) candidate François Fillon was favored to get it all. He blew it because of some petty acts of greed that belied the image he cultivated and briefly projected, of the boy scout choirboy traditional conservative Thatcherite free-enterprise man. With such a program, he had a chance to unite the two Frances of the provinces and the big cities. The provinces are more leave-us-alone, small (and large) businesses, somewhat more traditional in mores and customs, while Paris is up there in the global urban leagues and, among other things, will not give up the goal, or illusion, of European leadership.
French voters — in both Frances — appreciate the European project, the notion of some kind of unified, federal continent to further their prosperity and security. People in the southwest, for example, know how much they benefit from proximity to the economic dynamo that is Catalonia. Fillon is with them on this, but speaks in vielle France accents. Unlike Marine Le Pen, whose security hard line he broadly shares (neither has much to say on the operational side of the challenge), he would not quit Europe like the Brits. He cannot deny as blithely as she evidently can how much contemporary France is bound to this project.
In a manner of speaking, what France’s leaders did when they got the European movement under way in the 1950s along with the West Germans and the Italians and the little countries of the Rhineland was to re-create the Carolingian kingdom of Lotharingia. But they each had their own parochial motivations, and in the French case, additional to burying the hatchet with Germany for good, it was to trade their African Empire for Europe. Now they feel shortchanged, also kind of cramped — mentally no less than physically — as the empire found it nicer to move in with the old masters. The left denies this. The right tries to find ways of smoothing it over. The National Front uses it as an electoral issue.
France gets a better deal out of the “multicultural society” that the left openly embraces than many National Front voters admit, as per the service receive from the dour but reliable guards who traded their sunny West Indies for park patrols. However, not all new arrivals are so well disposed. Poorly integrated culturally distinct huddled masses create issues of housing, public order, employment, education, that an old, settled population does not like to deal with.
The people who pay the price for the resulting strains are poor, often alienated by economic mutations they never made or expected. The people telling them immigration and the evolving multicultural society they are creating “together” (Macron’s slogan) are privileged, rich, living in what we would call lily-white neighborhoods. These unhappy citizens voted Communist in the past, viewing the Party as their tribune. Now they vote National Front.
It should be kept in mind, though of course it is not, that in macro terms the French prospered from the Empire-for-Europe deal to a degree they never dreamed possible. But it is always easier to turn unexpected difficulties into political demagogy than it is to explain the contradictions of progress. As a hybrid super-state, Europe has problems on many levels: lax enforcement of border security, a badly conceived common currency, a double deficit in democracy. The last comes from the fact that while the European Union’s representative institutions, notably the Parliament, are in fact toothless, the national institutions have seen their own teeth pulled by a European Executive that is the regulatory, administrative, bureaucratic State from Hell.
Fillon’s position was: don’t leave it, fix it, in depth. Many French voters feel that way. They have demonstrated this in referenda and in voting patterns, not to mention the most telling vote, the one with their feet. The French emigrate in search of economic (and mental) freedoms, the sort Europe is meant to deliver, and they make New York and London rich with young highly educated human capital — Macronites, or if you want, Macarons.
You cannot say if Macron would have pulled it off against an untarnished Fillon. One thing in his favor is that he did not go directly into the higher civil service and thence politics, like most of his class and kind, but into the private sector.
The private sector represents less than half of French GDP now, so it is high time they got a man who understands the fable of the goose and the golden eggs. De Gaulle was very well advised by one of the great economists of the last century, Jacques Rueff, and his immediate successor, Georges Pompidou, worked for the same bank where young Emmanuel earned his reputation as a whiz kid. The Rothschild bank is, of course, one of the glories of French capitalism, a large chunk of which was finally driven out of France (to the benefit of New York) the last time you had a demagogic onslaught against “the banks” from the political side, namely when the Socialists came in under Mitterrand, circa 1980. Mitterrand, it is worth recalling when thinking about the little game played by Le Pen and Mélenchon, came to the left from the extreme, even anti-parliamentary right of his youth and young manhood.
Under the programs of either Marine Le Pen or the stalino-trotskyite Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Hugo Chavez fan who pulled about as many votes as Fillon in the first round of voting two weeks ago, you had mirror images of anti-bank, anti-capitalist, and sotto voce anti-Jewish demagogy. But the anti-Jewish trash-talk is worse on the left, because its politically correct (and electorally calculated) appeasement of Islam forbids it to say the obvious: if there is an anti-Jewish threat in France, it comes not from old geezers who collect Vichy memorabilia but from anti-Western Muslim radicals, who take charge of the zones where law and order have abdicated, along with schools and other institutions of republican integration. These are poor neighborhoods, often suburban, where “overseas Frenchmen” like the park guard from Martinique would like to be good neighbors with the increasingly despairing “native” working class.
The left has no answer to this difficult situation; the National Front, at least, recognizes it. Its solutions are impractical, when not delusional: you cannot simply expel people, and in particular when they are French citizens, as many of these non-assimilated immigrants are.
Macron will have to face this and deal with it, as his predecessors for the most part did not. He says he wants to. He says a dynamic economy is an essential part of the solution, and Europe is an essential part of a dynamic economy.
So you wonder. Or you avoid it, like a Frenchman, and amble over to a park up on the northern line in the 20th , arrondissement (precinct), where the tennis courts are not often in use. The chances of finding a partner there are iffy, but there will be young Arabs and Moroccan Jews on the basketball court with the bent rim, semi-tough street kids. My aging legs cannot keep up with them, but I have a better percentage from the wings. Get ’em with the long shots. Marine was supposed to have a long shot, in the delusional notions of Americans who confuse la France, la France seule with America First; and do they understand either?
Or you can go east, there is a really nice place, not far from the Vincennes suburb, on the boulevard Poniatowski — named after an immigrant who made good — safer bet in terms of getting a game. Vincennes has a beautiful park, too, and a Foreign Legion recruitment center, there are always desperados aiming to give themselves a fresh start in the distant badlands where brave men in khaki uniforms guard us while we sleep.
Interestingly enough for Marine, her dad, the old bigot, was himself drawn to the Legion, appreciated the contributions foreign soldiers made to the Republic. He was deployed to Indochina too late to die there, and he re-upped a few years later, even though he held a seat in parliament, to go to Algeria. There is some uncertainty about his service in Algeria, but he is on record as saying vigorous interrogation — one of the factors that turned the French public against that war — was justified.
He came home, went back into politics, eventually start-upped his own movement, xenophobic and anti-Gaullist. De Gaulle is alleged to have “abandoned” Algeria and opened the door to mass immigration from North Africa, which in fact he warned against.
Le Pen was definitely an emmerdeur, a p. in the a., and he knew he would never win an election. He only got a few deputies in the parliament when Mitterrand, in a cynical move to trip up the conservatives, instituted proportional representation for the duration of one election. Marine Le Pen opted for respectability — and a shot at power — when she inherited the party and the cement-business fortune, or what remained of it, that had made her family wealthy. Sincerely or not, she got annoyed when the old man, by then in his late 80s, kept up his anti-Semitic rants and had him drummed out of the party. There may still be lawsuits pending, but lawsuits are nothing new at the Le Pen’s. She went chi-chi, too, surrounding herself with h*m*s*x advisors from the very elite finishing schools she claims produce the dudes who are more loyal to a place called Europe than to France.
Marine’s guys are kind of sinister — they have the whiff of Ernst Röhm and his kamaraden. But this is a non-political, non-fact-based impression, perhaps mainly relevant only to my own nightmares. At any rate, the gay world in Paris is crossover; for instance, the socialist ex-mayor of Paris, Betrand Delanoë, was hated by the right and almost murdered by a crazy jihad sex-mad assailant. I always thought the anti-gay hysteria among Muslims has something to do with their own pederast inclinations, and as we well know child rape is accepted practice among Pak and Pashtun males whom we persist in trying to turn into liberal democrats.
Delanoë, a hard-nose mayor, was on the whole a rather effective administrator though too much on the Paris-as-showcase side, which, mind, went against the interests of the traditional Parisian working class. France’s socialists care for the French working class about as much as America’s Democrats care for Negroes, such as they still think of them. He was in line with a long series of Paris bosses, including Jacques Chirac before he became president, who engaged in systematic and ruthless class-cleansing. Neighborhoods like my beloved Belleville, where I used to play ball with boys (and girls, mind) from North Africa are where Delanoë and his wealthy pals live. Tenements with toilets down the hall that stank now are gentrified, fetch New York prices. The new owners are the people who hate the National Front, of course. But it ain’t necessarily Macron’s fault the cookie broke this way.
What is certain, though, is that he partook, in a somewhat “lite” tone — the dignity of the presidential candidate oblige, after all — of the “fascism must not pass” hysteria which seized large sectors of the bien-pensant center and left, and for that matter right. France together, a united republican front, ¡No Pasaran!, all that. This was based on a fantasy, but it produced a thrilling frisson. It also, of course, allowed people who know which side of the bread the butter is on to vote in good conscience for the one guy in this race who seemed to have a grip on economic reality, without admitting this matters more than imaginary specters of brownshirts in the night.
Anyway, Marine’s program was not tenable and she would have been blocked by a) facts and b) French laws if she tried to implement what her detractors said she would. She probably knew it, which would explain her appalling performance during her one-on-one with Macron last week. For a couple hours she said mean things, snarled at him, smiled in a nasty, snide way. She knew by then she would not make it, so she vented. She was not presidential — her own father said so, though to be sure he may have had motivations of his own to undercut her.
France works pretty well, even if too many people are not working. Vaste programme, de Gaulle used to say, when he knew there were no magic wands. In the meantime, there are guards, good and decent men, underpaid, mindful of rules but capable of small courtesies that may require bending them, pacing the well-kept parks. And perchance there is someone out there like me, looking up at the sky and aiming to pick up a game of tennis.