The Charge of the Light Red Brigade

Maytime in Paris, and as always, they were selling fragrant bunches of muguet lilies-of-the-valley after Sunday Mass at the church on the Rue Mouffetard. An accordion played a haunting Piaff tune, while a woman with a bright yellow coat and bold black dots like a Toulouse Lautrec painting danced in the square, as the shoppers stood silently in line for their market delicacies.

You would hardly have guessed that change was in the air during this rainy, cool spring weekend that brought back into power in France the first socialist government in a generation. Coincidence or not, I had been in Paris in May 1981 when François Mitterrand upset Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. And here I was once again, on May 6th 2012, the very day François Hollande swept away Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then, I was a young fellow intoxicated with change, with a face greeting me with a Maytime bunch of muguets, and much else besides. This time around, France seemed to match my more sober mood, for the world seems a darker and far more uncertain place than it was in 1981 – at least for the French. Just like France, I wish for renewal. Just like France, I’m of an age to now see bigger cycles of history rolling by me. And just like France, I am still a creature of hope.

So, like some vast collective beehive with a 30 year cycle of pupation and emergence, France once again changes its conservative blue for Socialist red – well, a rather pale pink, actually  – and its new leader takes wing. Soon Hollande, the newbie G7 leader, will be in Washington, in Berlin, in London, spreading a message that everyone at street level wants to hear but no other leader has the courage to speak out: “the chemotherapy of economic austerity is killing the patient, not the cancer!”  Nobody has yet had the courage to exhume the body, life and work of JM Keynes and say “boo” to Angela Merkel. Will that man be Hollande?

Although Parisians take their civic duties seriously (more than 80% of the population voted), during Sunday there was little sign around the streets of the Left Bank that a monumental election was in progress. In the Jardins du Luxembourg the tennis courts were packed, as were the cafés along the Boulevard St Germain (later that night we would join the crowds walking joyfully along this wide thoroughfare, for a single day closed to motor traffic). But during the day, France’s rules on exit polling, canvassing and last-minute campaigning are so strict that the main TV station shows morning cartoons. Even tweets are scrutinized by electoral authorities.

It wasn’t until close to 8.00 pm, when polls closed and the TV countdown began for the announcement of the winner, that the atmosphere became electric. We make our way to the streets around Solferino, the headquarters of the Socialist Party, where a huge and enthusiastic crowd has gathered. Thousands of camera phones are held aloft and a rock-stadium vibe is building. “Sarkozy, tu és fini” comes the chant in great rolling waves that pressure your chest.  Girls with red roses in their hair are perched on shoulders, PS flags wave, people drinking champagne.

Nobody is over 30 years old. Their parents must have been the same age as me when I toasted Mitterrand’s victory. A radio reporter asks me for an interview and I stumble out something about this being the Tahrir Square of Europe. It’s not quite William Wordsworth’s “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” But as the crowds surge off to the Bastille for the all-night victory party, you get a strong sense the France is up for renewal, for rebirth. Later on, at the Café de Flore, we see the foreign correspondents drinking, their TV news packages safely done and dusted.

What’s in the offing is another experience that spits in the face of Anglo-Saxon rationalism, that raises a finger to Chicago-trained finance professionals, to editorial writers from The Economist, and above all to Dusseldorf-disciplined managers seeking a sensible yet charmless consensus for a new Europe where we shall all eat bratwurst, drive Audis and take our package holidays in Turkey once our fat pensions become due.

So what are to make of this latest French attempt to continue walking on water by denying the laws of financial and economic gravity in a globalised economy where we are all supposed to worship at the altar of the bond markets?

The punditry is equally divided between those who believe Hollande will change nothing at all, and those who want to frighten us with “reds under the bed.” The Economist ran a cover about “the Rather Dangerous Monsieur Hollande.” My friend Bill Hinchberger, who lives in Paris and so should know (better) wrote a long piece asking how “scary” the new French leader was, and concluding he’s no more likely to frighten the horses than (former) Brazilian leftist leader Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was. The bond markets ended up loving him.

But there’s still a lingering sense that France has just upped the stakes in “gesture politics.” To paraphrase the French general Pierre François Joseph Bosquet’s comment about the pointless and suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade by British cavalrymen in the Crimean War: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” Or rather, “It’s a magnificent gesture, but hardly appropriate policymaking to suit recessionary times.”

As the world turns wobbly, Europe crumbles, and everyone else loses their nerve, here are the French, raising the finger to common-sense, the pack instinct – and probably to France’s own Christine Lagardère of the IMF too. She will have to give her own compatriots a tremendous telling-off when the euro hits the fan. Should we laugh, or cheer?

France’s defiance is magnificent and I for one hope things will work out under Hollande. It would be a sad thing if France were to become more of what it had slipped into under the rather sleazy, self-aggrandizing Nicolas Sarkozy and his tiresome chanteuse consort Carla Bruni. It wasn’t so much that French people like Hollande – in truth a totally unknown cypher – by that they really, really hate Sarko and what he stood for.

There was a distinct sense of social division. On top, the tiny meritocracy of smug Énarques running state-owned multinationals selling perfume, nuclear power or weapons using their easy access to cheap government credit to embark on vanity-driven M&A benders around the world. Down below a grumpy and increasingly African or Islamic majority squeezed into satellite towns. And between them a protective layer of petit-bourgeois antique shops, busy selling off the past. Around St Germain-des-Prés you can buy a second empire mirror, an altar-piece or a dubious Corot oil painting, but you can hardy find a bar open on a Sunday night.

Anglo-Saxons love to observe that while the French capital has become an immaculate “living zoo” where Parisians are on show for visiting Japanese tourists, anyone seeking work needs to come to messy, capitalist London. Already, there are 450,000 Gallic residents, two lycées, two radio stations serving the  French diaspora-on-Thames,  and even a congressman to make political promises to them. But this doesn’t help the French to create real work, and it doesn’t help British unemployment much, either.

During the weekend I received a message from a distinguished journalist I’d hoped to meet in Paris – but she was in Argentina. Her take on France after 5 years of covering the beat: “I’d have loved to have been in France for the results – though I can’t tell you how sick I am of French politics – these last 5 years have been so long and bitter and the country is more divided psychologically than it’s ever been.” By contrast, she found that in Christina Kirchner’s nationalist, tub-thumping Argentina, “people don’t seem to be paranoid about Islam or immigration or national identity or foreigners or terrorism.” When jumpy Argentina is deemed more chilled than France, you know something is badly out of whack.

Of course the election reporting was slanted, but the left-wing French press managed to capture something of the “bad loser” atmosphere and general nastiness prevailing at the Sarkozy not-victory party at the Mutualité on Sunday night, among the young and still-militant Sarkozistas (though not, it must be said, from the graceful and dignified president himself). Sarko left the stage to nurse the humiliation of being denied a second presidential term, still convinced he was the victim of global economic forces, not of his own abrasive personality.

“We’re in the shit, we’re in the shit,” they sang to the tune of Queen’s “We are the Champions.”  One interviewee wailed to the lefty daily Libération: “It’s horrible, I can’t bear to think I’ll have to look at this man with face like a crème caramel for the next five years.” Said another: “he just makes me want to puke.”

Now things will change. Or perhaps they never really did. The truth is that by sheer force of brazen cheek, chutzpah, cultural superiority, call it what you will, France has got away with blue murder for generations – and will continue to do so.

America may have had its own revolution much earlier, Italy’s Catherine de Medici may have first introduced France to haute cuisine, Jacques Brel was born in Belgium, not France (as was Tintin creator Hergé) but we all know that when it comes to matters of politics, philosophy, food, art, culture and sex, FRANCE COMES FIRST! At its best, modern France gobbles up what’s best from other cultures. Many people believe both Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were at least partly French — likewise Mick Jagger’s old squeeze, Marianne Faithfull.

Didn’t Talleyrand, the prince of diplomats, start off working for the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy, then change sides to join Napoleon – and then change sides again to join the right side as one of the victorious parties in the rebuilding of Europe after the Battle of Waterloo? The French can do anything! Wasn’t the exiled wartime leader General Charles de Gaulle grudgingly permitted by Winston Churchill to take a tiny force on the D-day invasion – and somehow ended up racing into Paris to “liberate” it from under the noses of the British and American armies? And once he was in power, de Gaulle turned around and thanked his wartime benefactor Britain by refusing to allow it to join a precursor of the EU. Likewise the real student protests of the 1960s really took place in Berkeley, California. But now we only ever think about May 1968, Danny le Rouge and the Sorbonne.

There’s a kind of wholly-commendable form of charlatanism (after all, they invented they word) that describes self-confident France when it’s on a roll. Pushy, cocky, confident. Everyone else has to believe that France is best, because it so patently is. Don’t review the facts, just believe.

So, could we see Hollande get “le Mojo Français” working again, just as it was during the Mitterrand era? All around me are the ripened infrastructure fruits of the last Socialist adventure when Mitterrand was the sun-king:  IM Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, La Défense and its library, the TGV and the Eurostar that brought me here from London. Can François Hollande hope to achieve a miracle of similar proportions? Will there be a rebirth?

The pundits are hedging their bets.  After all, Hollande’s 52% vote as barely  greater than Mitterrand’s own 51.76% back in 1981.  These sense is that the political honeymoon will be short. The Monday-after editorial in Libération, is typical. “Work hasn’t even started yet and from tomorrow, things will be brutal.  So today, be happy, and live life to the full during this beautiful month of May” wrote Nicolas Demorand. Nobody sees to believe that Hollande will bring in a 75% bash-the-rich income tax rate as he promised, or be able to do much to get the jobs flowing again outside the state sector which is all he knows about. And yet, and yet….

So after 30 years, I myself stand witness to a great social convulsion that crystallizes the anxiety for rebirth, for a second chance at a civic new start. I don’t believe it has so much to do with democracy, but is something more much more tribal than that.

It’s a commonplace that Paris is a city for lovers. But it’s really a city of revolutions, and of new personal beginnings. Every square seems to have its statue of Danton or some other revolutionary. People build up barricades, and then tear them down again.

And so this May, the scent from the muguet bouquets is every bit as intoxicating as it was 30 years ago when I stepped off the train in Paris and found myself embarking on a new journey that took me around the world to Latin America. With Mitterrand at the Matignon, France took off and so did my career. With Hollande, I hope you’ll raise a glass with me and toast “same again please.”  Along with France, we all deserve revival, renewal, revolution – whatever the future brings. Whether that makes me sentimental is for you, and more importantly for time, to judge.

© Richard House


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