L’embarras du choix

http://candidat-2017.fr/candidats.php

Is it so surprising that in the land of 400 cheeses there are almost as many candidates for Président de la République?

After 25 years in France, several of them with my voter’s card in my pocket and a certain fluency in its ways, only now am I beginning to understand (sort of) how this whole voting malarkey works.

It seems that anyone who is able to vote can also declare themselves a candidate in the 2017 French presidential election. And quite a few already have – upwards of 150 by my calculations.

Getting the requisite 500 signatures of elected representatives to make their candidacy official is much harder: so far only a handful have achieved this. And today, March 17th, is the final date – after which the list will be greatly reduced. St. Patrick may dance a little jig.

In the meantime, I have discovered that the list of candidates contains some real gems. There is Super Chataigne (eh oui, super chestnut), a masked contender whose platform is founded upon giving democracy back to the people. I think it is a parody but in France it is hard to be sure.

You have to wonder why they would bother. It’s fairly certain that the vote will come to down to one of a short list of Macron, Hamon, Fillon or Le Pen. But it seems to be dear to the French heart that the election keep its balance, ensuring that everyone, including the Trotskyists, has a voice in the debate. Peu importe – small matter – if they are eliminated before we get to the first round. At least a diversity of views will have been represented.

A degree of pluralité, or pluralism, will mean that the next month will be interesting, even entertaining. And I hope the result will be less catastrophic than other recent election results.

Stay tuned as the saga continues!

Penelope gate

penelope-gate

She is someone I can relate to. An English speaker, about my age, married to a Frenchman. Which makes the uproar currently sweeping our nation, the so-called ‘Penelope gate’, all the more disturbing.

I know almost nothing about Penelope Fillon, née Clarke, except that she is said to be from Wales and has been married to François Fillon, former Prime Minister (under Sarkozy) and the Republican candidate for the upcoming French presidential election in May.

When I learned that Fillon’s wife was Welsh, he immediately went up in my esteem. That she was shy and stayed out of the limelight made her seem rather sympathetic; her role as a stay-at-home mother of five perhaps less so. Often referred to by the media as Catholic and ‘deeply conservative’, Fillon has been accused of wanting to revoke abortion rights (something he has publicly refuted, stating that his personal convictions and the rights of women in this country are two separate matters).

It came to light last week that Penelope had received large sums of money as her husband’s ‘parliamentary assistant’ and later as a contributor to a political review. The left-leaning Canard Enchainé newspaper revealed the amounts, up to 900 K euros, over a 10-year period and suggested that it was in the guise of an ‘emploi fictif’, i.e. that she was paid to do nothing.

If there is one thing that French voters are sensitive to, it is the suggestion that someone has been paid for nothing. In an age of high unemployment, where so many people scrape to get by, the idea of our leaders taking advantage of the system to funnel money into their own households is unpalatable to say the least.

The unfortunate affair is now in the hands of the courts. In theory, there was nothing illegal in an elected official hiring members of his own family to do things like research his speeches, organize his schedule and do whatever else an assistant would do – giving birth to some interesting memes.

euro-fillon

It will be hard to prove that Penelope did not earn the salary she received, which was fully declared for tax purposes. But the mere suggestion of such corruption has tarnished Fillon’s image in the eyes of a good part of the voting public – perhaps irrevocably.

François Fillon has taken the moral high ground in his campaign, declaring that if he is under any kind of investigation, he will not run. He has also pointed the finger at his opponents on the left, accusing them of the worst sort of mud-slinging, even a ‘coup d’état’.

It’s a political scandal with a potentially disastrous fall-out. The conservative votes that would normally have gone to Fillon, should he not be a viable candidate, will now be split between the left and the extreme right.

Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party has been left in ruins. It began with the defection of Emmanuel Macron, his former economy minister, who is leading his own presidential run as a free ‘centrist’ candidate. The Socialists’ official candidate, Benoît Hamon, is a ‘frondeur’ – a rebel of sorts – seen by some as a utopian. On the far right, rubbing her hands together like Wile E. Coyote, is Marine Le Pen.

While Fillon waits for the courts to decide whether or not to open an inquiry, the pack of hyenas who call themselves journalists in this country have already torn him apart and declared him an unfit candidate. ‘Presumed innocent’ hangs vaguely in the air while they speculate over campaign tactics and a potential plan B for the right.

In the meantime, I feel for Penelope. It can’t be easy to be a shy person who is suddenly cast into the worst kind of public scrutiny. I’ve never heard her speak on camera, so I don’t know how she handles herself in French. The suspense won’t last long – the investigative news magazine Envoyé Spécial is said to have an ‘incriminating’ interview with her which will air tonight.

Penelope gate, as the French have dubbed the affair, continues. Stay tuned.

Moi, président de la République

closer

France was all aflutter this week, and it was not with snow. Word came down the wire that President Hollande would address the nation on Thursday evening at 8:00 pm. An unscheduled presidential address? This was breaking news!

Given our president’s historically unparalleled unpopularity, and the fact that the centre-right has now chosen François Fillon as its candidate for next spring’s presidential election, we did have a wee hint that it might have something to do with politics. That we might finally get an answer to the question: Would he or wouldn’t he?

Hollande hemmed and he hawed and took several long minutes to reflect upon the many successes of his administration, from same-sex marriage to lower unemployment, as viewers across the nation cried: “Accouche!” Quite literally to give birth, in this context it means – spit it out!

Then he finally uttered the words we had all been waiting for: “J’ai décidé de ne pas être candidat à l’élection présidentielle.” He would not stand for re-election.

Enfin! We all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

FlanbyFlanby, as the Guignols de l’info fondly baptized Hollande years ago, has lived up to his name. The popular brand of crème caramel always seemed to fit the man: wet, wobbly, bland. If only his politics had not lived up so well to his image. If only during his campaign in 2012 he had not uttered those famous first words:

“Moi, président de la République…”

He would be the people’s president, he promised, and his behaviour would be exemplary at all times. This just months before his not-so-secret dalliance with actress Julie Gayet was revealed on the cover of Closer, followed by a painfully public breakup with journalist Valérie Trierveiler, for whom he had previously left his long-time companion and the mother of his four children, fellow politician Ségolène Royal. Et oui, French politics are not for the faint of heart.

By choosing not to run, Hollande has demonstrated the dignity to acknowledge his failures and, in doing so, possibly save his party from total ruin. Will a worthy candidate emerge from the rubble? I doubt it. Prime Minister Manuel Valls is looking like the most likely contender, and if ever there was an unlikeable politician, it is he. The last thing we need is another petit nerveux, his deep-voice and close-set eyes sternly reminding us of how wrongly we have all behaved.

It’s easy to criticize, I hear you say. What would you do if you were president?

Moi, présidente…

I would get rid of party politics. Emmanuel Macron, who resigned from his position as an economy minister in Hollande’s government in August to run as an independent candidate in the presidential election, has taken a step in this direction. While I don’t think he is quite ready for the presidency, at the tender age of thirty-six years or practically in his infancy in French politics, I do think he has the right idea.

I would advocate for a 6th Republic. While I’m not for the Marxist revolution sought by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and those on the far left, there are just too many institutions to change in France without starting afresh. We need to rewrite the constitution to redistribute power in a more democratic way.

Last but surely not least, I would conduct my own personal French revolution by making public toilets clean, free and readily available on every corner.

What would you do if you were president?

 

 

Le mur

The wall

There was a lot of talk about walls yesterday. The ‘anti-fascist protection’ one that came down in 1989, the year my son was born. The one that Trump has promised to build – and get the Mexicans to pay for. The one that Canada may need to hold back the tide of fleeing Americans. When Canada’s immigration site crashed sometime in the wee hours yesterday, well before the results were in, the writing was surely on the wall.

Sitting in France, working in Switzerland and with roots in Canada, I was surprised at how deeply affected we all were by the news that there would be a – gulp – President Trump.

We are not American, even though the US president is thought to lead the so-called ‘free’ world. My Canadian family and friends can rightly quake, living in the shadow of the giant and sometimes feeling a little like its 51st state. Culturally, we are distinct; economically, less so.

Switzerland is home to many expats, some of whom are my friends and colleagues. As much as I wanted the polls to be right, I had spoken to people – articulate, smart people – who admitted they would vote for Trump. I’d witnessed the hatred for Hillary, and the refusal of Trump supporters to take seriously any charges against him. What would it take, I wondered? Explicit evidence of child pornography? My gut told me the polls were a reflection of what the influencers wanted to see.

Here in France, as I listened to talk about the election results yesterday, I found myself thinking about the invisible wall that exists between us and the US. While there is a strong, longstanding friendship between the two countries, that barrier is real on so many levels – cultural, linguistic, political.

Watching a French TV panel that included Christine Ockrent, a respected journalist who is married to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) founder Dr. Bernard Kouchner, discussing Trump alongside a young blonde American member of the Republicans in France, that wall could not have been more evident. Although the American woman spoke French very well, the wall came down on the French faces as quickly and as surely as if a door had shut. Was it her very-American accent, her direct way of saying things or simply her open-faced support of the man who is perceived as a monster here in France?

Alongside her sat another woman, who had formerly worked for Hillary Clinton. Although these two women sat on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I was struck by the fact that they appeared to have more in common than they did with any of the French panelists. No matter what, Americans will proudly defend their country’s democratic process as being the expression of its popular will. The French, for all that they resist until death, will allow themselves to be led by their elected elites.

The wall is cultural, and it is also political. The French openly dislike anything so crass and populist and commercial as Trump. And although many will vote for Marine LePen and the far-right Front National, two things hold her back from ever becoming President: the first is class. She doesn’t have it. Nor does Sarkozy, which goes a long way to explaining why he was not re-elected and is unlikely to make a comeback. The second is that the political elites in this country, supported by the French people, will not allow it. The post-war fear of fascism is just too strong. So opposing political parties will band together in order to block what is seen as dangerous.

As much as this country has its problems, and you know that I have no hesitation in calling them out, the particular horror of a Trump in power would not happen here. Nor, with all due respect to my British friends, would a Brexit. But the two movements are not dissimilar, and that is another reason why it is frightening. Both seem to believe they can and should shut their borders, live as islands sufficient unto themselves. While this is harder to imagine in the UK, the potential economic fall-out from US trade restrictions is huge.

But whether or not they build any more walls, le mur is already there.

Burkini beach

Burkini beach banThe New York Times has called it ‘farcical’.

The Guardian has suggested there are many good reasons to wear the ‘wet suit with a hood’, and not just to annoy the French.

In Rio, burkini-clad athletes competed alongside others in skimpy bathing suits.

As our long, hot summer continues, the ban on the burkini by the mayors of several French towns has me hot under the collar. And this photo of police in Nice forcing a woman to remove her cover has me in a cold sweat.

What’s all the fuss about the burkini in France?

It’s about fear.

Fear of losing our national identity. An identity that has more to do with the freedom of topless sunbathing than it does with religion.

It’s about Islamophobia, another form of fear. Fear of terror attacks by those purporting to defend Islam, even while we understand that ISIS has nothing to do with Muslims.

It’s about the secular state, which is highly valued in France despite the fact that we march to the Christian calendar. It’s about fear of foreign ways and wanting to feel ‘chez nous’.

It’s about politics, plain and simple. In other words, when French prime minister Manuel Valls says he understands the mayors of several towns who have banned the burkini, it’s a smoke screen. It’s fear mongering, and it’s keeping the otherwise vocal French quiet.

To be fair, the French have always been somewhat hysterical about public swimming pools. Men: do not attempt to enter a public pool in France wearing swimming trunks or longer shorts. ‘Le caleçon’ is traditionally forbidden in pools here for so-called reasons of hygiene. The only acceptable swimwear for men in France is the ‘slip de bain’ aka the noodle bender.

So by extension, I can accept that, by the same logic, the burkini might be forbidden in public swimming pools. But on the beach? Alors là, non! It is just ridiculous. What does it mean for those who wear wet suits, people with sun allergies or those who are just plain shy? Can you imagine these cops asking a nun to remove her habit?

While I disagree with the fundamental principles that lead these women to cover their bodies, I will fight to the death for their right to do it. However misguidedly, and for whatever reason, religious or otherwise. The way we choose to dress is an essential right and freedom that should not be dictated by any government.

I love the fact that the French ban has sparked sales of the burkini. It is an innovative piece of clothing design by an Australian-Lebanese woman, one that enables an otherwise-excluded segment of the population to enjoy the pleasures of swimming. In her own words, it is meant to liberate women, not enslave them.

If weren’t so damned hot, I’d probably wear a burkini myself out of solidarity. I’m a shit disturber at heart, especially when I believe that something is full of it.

And the French, for all their dislike of political correctness and respect for private life, are just plain full of it on this one.

Et toi? What do you think about the burkini?