Money is like sex, the author Charles Bukowski wrote, it’s so much more important when you don’t have any. I’m beginning to feel the same way about democracy, there seems to be an awful lot of it about these days and I’m just not getting any. In democracy terms, I’m the kid at a teenage party who ends up sitting uncomfortably on a sofa next a couple wildly groping each other; I’ve become a voting gooseberry. Seriously, everybody’s at it.
I spent most of Friday watching the fallout of the UK Local Elections, and with a feeling of angry impotence that I was watching events unfold that I had no say in, but that could impact me. Of course, I live in France, so what right should I have to influence a ‘Local Election’? Well, the major share of my tax is paid in the UK and presumably some of that money goes to local government, so why shouldn’t I get a say? No taxation without representation and so on. The other way of looking at it is that it wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference if I’d voted or not anyway as, politically, it was all something of a foregone conclusion. I don’t hold with that either and not in some ‘people died for this right’ gloomy pomposity, but simply that your capacity to have a good old whinge at the outcome is lessened if you couldn’t be arsed to take part in the first place.
It was dismal viewing though, not necessarily the results themselves, the writing was on the wall there, but the sheer vacuity of the ‘talent’ on offer. Robots, all doing the rounds of TV studios and outside broadcasts with the same icy mantras, ‘strong and stable’, ‘hard-working families’, ‘coalition of chaos’, ‘on the doorstep’, ‘leadership’. It was all so mind-numbingly facile, so uncontested largely too as both the Conservatives and Labour seemed happy enough to just gloat over the demise of UKIP, rather than be examined. UKIP won one seat and, on the face of it, seem destroyed as a force now but that’s not because their arguments are old hat or they’ve been found wanting, but because the Conservative Party nicked all their clothes and Labour, so petrified of challenging them, themselves muttered half-heartedly about immigration levels too and so were neither one thing or the other.
Politicians on all sides just spouted phrases at each other, the kind of meaningless advertising-speak politics that dominates now, all meat-free alliteration that could be generated from algorithms, ‘Forceful and Free’, ‘Powerful and Prudent’, ‘Vacant and Vain’, ‘Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar’. It’s all pish and piffle frankly.
Contrast that with one of the other democratic exercises I’m currently excluded from, the genuine emotion and confrontation of the French election. Why am I excluded from this election? I mean I pay a percentage of my taxes here too. Surely I should… oh never mind. For the first-time, France has had televised debates involving the candidates and it does make a difference. Which is precisely why the easily harassed and wooden Theresa May won’t take part in one and why the patronising and equally tetchy Jeremy Corbyn won’t either. The final of three TV debates took place with just the two remaining French Presidential candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen and it was confrontational stuff; a powerful, policy based old-fashioned ding dong. The type of political brouhaha that gets people emotionally involved, fires them up, gets them voting.
Natalie is allowed to vote of course, and I went with her for the first round a couple of weeks ago at the local Salles des fêtes, where as usual it was the same people carrying out all the civic tasks. The same people who help out at school fêtes or the brocantes or the Armistice parade or the Bastille Day celebrations, people who basically keep a small rural town running, the absolute essence of rural France. It was the first time Natalie had voted and as we bumped into some friends on the way out they explained the process. Take your envelope, and then a slip of paper with your preferred candidate’s name printed on it from one of the 11 candidate piles. Natalie took all 11 to throw anyone off the scent. Then go into the booth, draw the curtain and do your duty. I added that she should also, once the curtain was drawn behind her, shout out ‘And who used all the shampoo?’ which is an old Danny Baker joke, but the austerity of the occasion put a dampner on that. It was all very formal. Even though I knew everyone behind the desk, and knew them well enough to greet them with kisses and handshakes, it seemed inappropriate to do so, like it might contravene the purity of democracy somehow.
Natalie, in what was a pretty slim straw poll I grant you, decided that as there were fewer Macron slips of paper available he was pulling ahead of the pack and we settled down to watch the first polls be released at 8 that evening. There is strict control on the release of this information in France. The first exit polls can’t be shown until after the majority of polling stations have closed, in case they influence the voting. Also, they are done so only via the Ministry for the Interior – the current Minister for the Interior is called Fekl, which as Hollande’s appointment also neatly sums up his future job prospects. This severity though, this state control, is in contrast to the actual hoopla that goes on on the television channels waiting for the results. TF1 had a sparkly backdrop like it was a talent contest and had a countdown from 10 to 1 which everyone, journalists and MPs included, joined in with like it was the National Lottery or something. A bizarre and very, very French mix of strict tradition coupled with tacky presentation.
The results were clear early on, Macron and Le Pen, would contest the run off and for the first time the two traditional parties, the Socialists and the Republicans wouldn’t be there. ‘Outsiders’ again, like Trump, like UKIP coming to the fore because people have had enough of working so hard for so little and seeing a gap between them and those at the top getting visibly, dangerously wider. The actual results for our town were more sobering. Le Pen, leader of the fascist Front National, won heavily. Later that week she actually resigned from the FN so that that organisation presumably wouldn’t appear on any new campaign materials, a cynical ploy designed to de-toxify her. She still stands for the same things though, division along racial and religious grounds, coming out of the EU, rampant nationalism, the demonisation of immigrants. She polled just over 30% in our small, rural town and it made me feel a bit sick. There is virtually no immigration here, in fact I’m just about the only one and I couldn’t help feeling a bit paranoid about that outcome, a bit unwanted.
Already there are reports of electoral ‘interference’ via the internet, designed to embarrass Macron, he’s also suing Le Pen for suggesting, during the TV debate, that he had a secret bank account in the Caribbean. Obama has thrown his weight behind Macron, and been told to back off by various people who shout that nobody should interfere, while they all of course, interfere. Theresa May says that Brussels is interfering in the UK election, which seems the least likely claim and is just a symbol of how hard-ass she’s trying to be, trying to portray the UK as the underdog which only she can stick up for. And it will work too, the Brits love an underdog, even if the underdog in this case is the bloke who nicked all the tools from your shed, sold them and is now whining about having to pay the money back. I personally think she’s called the election hoping not just for a bigger majority but that that majority will throw up a bigger Tory gene pool, some talent that she can use. It must be a pretty tough job as a leader on the threshold of potentially the biggest moment in your country’s history for generations knowing that David Davis is at your side. During a meal at Downing Street, attended by Jean-Claude Jüncker and May of course, Davis apparently kept telling the story of how he’d used the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to defeat the then UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, over private data retention. Like a boorish, jealous husband trying to belittle his more successful wife, he told the story three times. The man has no guile at all. With friends like these…
I’ll finally get my chance to vote on June 8th, but I have the nerves of the French election to get through first. Le Pen has promised to work on the system of ‘dual nationality’. Primarily this is aimed at Jews who hold French and Israeli passports, and forcing them to make a choice, but who would be next on her list? Who will she blame later when she can’t fix things? When the farmers, her main support, realise that actually they are utterly reliant on EU subsidies. Whose fault will it be then? Us other ‘foreigners’ perhaps? She’s unlikely to win. The system, thankfully, is stacked against her which sounds very undemocratic I know, but as someone once said, ‘Democracy is like sex, when it’s good, it’s very, very good. But when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.’ We’ll see.
As you’ll know, Le Pen was defeated. The tight control the French state puts on these things was circumvented as news came in early from the UK and Belgium that Macron would achieve around 63% of the vote, in the end it was 66%. The contrasting political camps, shown in juxtaposition on the TV screen, made this clear very early. There was no tension in the run up to the official declaration, the result was clear and France, Europe and so much of the watching world gave a sigh of relief and reached for a chilled bottle.
Farage took to twitter quickly to say Macron represented ‘5 more years of failure’, which is of course what he’s hoping for, but with added terrorist carnage so that his swivel-eyed dreams have innocent blood to frighten people into supporting them. Le Pen will rejoin the FN, but the FN will likely change its name to avoid the fascist tag in future. Unfortunately for them though, it’s the people they attract not the name. You can decant table wine into a bottle of 1959 Bordeaux if you like, but what pours out is still table wine.
It’s a relief here too. We had started talking about where we would go to next, would it be Canada or New Zealand? And hope that this time reactionary, backward looking, third age politics wouldn’t follow us. We’re definitely staying though. Macron won in our little town, narrowly by 695 votes to 645, but that’s positive enough. At least she didn’t win. And in the end was she ever likely to? When the prevailing mood is to elect governments of narrow, selfish, them and us, turn the clock back, build walls, knock the weak and the poor rhetoric; when the world is going one way, you can always rely on the French to go the other. Vive la différence!
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