French presidential election candidate for the  French Socialist party Benoit Hamon

They’ve cordoned off the whole of the Place de la Republique, the big square at the north-east end of the centre of Paris, above the river, where the scruffy and groovy areas around the Gare du Nord begin. Hundreds of grey metal barriers have been erected at each street in, an ugly blight on the honey-stone facades, the presses and tabacs kiosks with iron lace and frosted glass. At each entrance, French cops, robocops, encased in bullet proof mats, and a dozen holsters for all conceivable weapons: two guns, taser, gas grenade, petit gas mask, the works. They are bowed over by their gear, teenage mutant ninja turtles. Blown over by any blast, they would be unable to get up again.

They’re searching everyone streaming into La Republique for the rally; there should be huge delays, but there aren’t. The crowds coming up the Metro steps aren’t that, well, crowdy, and we’re soon in. There is perhaps a slight nervousness in the air; this morning the papers were full of the arrest of two young men, alleged to have been planning a big terrorist happening for the final days before the first-round election on Sunday. Republique isn’t too far from the Bataclan, the night club where a hundred-plus kids were murdered by at a gig by an ISIS-affiliated outfit, in a manner too awful to really think about for long, and the Republique, with its name, its large statue of Marianne, the female personification of the republic, would seem like a juicy target.

Luckily, today’s rally is a Parti Socialiste (PS) gathering, and there’s nothing juicy about that at all. Those of us coming into the square a half hour after the speakers were supposed to start, were surprised to find that it was still more than two-thirds empty, a crowd of around 10,000 or so gathered round a stage still being set up.

Every party is having a final rally before the first-round election, and this is the Parti Socialiste’s. It’s hard not to think that this might be their final rally altogether. Having dominated French politics since the election of Francois Mitterrand in 1981, and currently holding the presidency, the PS, a party heading for its sesquicentenary, has fallen victim to the crisis of once-monolithic, centre-left parties worldwide. The PS’ candidate Benoit Hamon, polled at 10% when he won the party primary, a pitiful figure. He increased that to about 17% by heavy campaigning — and then saw it fall back to 10% by this week, as the left candidacy of Jean-Luc Melenchon started to take off towards 20%.

Barring a miracle or collective polling error — neither of which favour a secular mainstream party — Hamon is toast. His candidacy was a crock, monsieur. In the last two weeks, the PS campaign appears to have fallen apart (the National Assembly elections are later, in June, so there are no parallel races to bolster a failing campaign). Journalists complain of PS events not happening, people not turning up. That appears to be borne out by the event today, which should be firing on all cylinders. As thousands assemble, tech are still on the big black draped, rockstar stage, adjusting the autocue panels and sound levels (“deux, deux”).

[Rundle: the future of Western politics might well be determined by the French election]

Besides the stage, a big screen has a list of speakers and discussions, none of which appear to be happening, featuring luminaries such as radical economist Thomas Piketty, and philosopher Edgar Marin. A nervous male model type in chambre shirt comes on, thanks us all for coming and then leaves again. Twenty minutes later, the screen splutters into life, and shows an ad for Hamon, a man who looks like Charles Aznavour. Not really. He has the black hair and the waiter’s suit, but he bears the same relation to le grand Charles as did Ed Miliband to David Miliband, i.e. he looks like a set of spare parts for him.

The film shows Hamon frenetically running around from housing tower to daycare centre to hanging with the youf. After that, Nervous Man comes on again, says Hamon will be a few minutes, and introduces DJ Rag (pronounced “rash”) who starts a sub-Ibiza routine as an empty stage pulsates with synced lights. “Nothing has ever happened here, and nothing ever will,” Situationist Guy Debord said of a photo of a street corner in Paris, and the PS’ final event appeared to keen to honour his memory.

The crowd didn’t seem to mind though, and that may be part of the problem. With only 10,000 here — it swelled to about 20,000 by the end — this was the loyalists, a pretty mixed crowd, though tending to the late 50s, 60s and beyond, and most of the kids here appear to have come/been dragged along as a family thing. DJ Rag was pumping his fist with the beat, and taking photos on his phone, of the crowd who were taking photos of the empty stage. It was pleasant enough, until Rag set the bass going, and it felt like someone had kicked your chest in. Four car alarms went off, and about a thousand pacemakers, I’m betting. Ten minutes elapsed. No one came on, no one said anything. Coming out of the media area, a woman passed me with a reporter’s notebook in hand:
“Excuse me, uh, I’m an Australian reporter.” I had the feeling that her sharp look suggested that there could be no such thing, but I progressed, “this is running two hours late. Is this normal?”*

She gave one of those little raspberries — pfffftt — that is acceptable in France: “It is for the socialists. It’s this way all the time.” People around her rolled their eyes. “That’s not true,” said one, but the journo had moved on. A middle-aged man in a cloth cap and a rough wool scarf — in England, it means “I race whippets”; in France, “I own a mid-size publishing company” — turned to me. 

“It’s not true. The press has been tough on us.”

“But look,” I said waving my arm at the stage, where DJ Rag — a sort of demonic mix of James Ashby and Plastic Bertrand, if you can imagine that — was waving back to us all. “I mean it’s a bit of a farce-“

He shrugged, which was his right, being French.

There were speakers eventually, but hell, a US rally would have had footsoldiers line up: a local councillor, party activist, party activist with one leg, LGBT one-legged party activist, etc, fulfilling the double function of looking populist and vamping till ready. There was a sense here that nothing could happen until the power arrived. The interim speakers that there were, the madame mayor of Lille, a heavyset peasant stock powerhouse, bagging both Macron and Melenchon (“we agree with him on very much except the idea that he can deliver it”) and a French-African deputy, who bagged Melenchon first, then Macron, to cheers.

There were more videos — “I would like to introduce our last video,” said the grinning, sweating MC, of the sixth, stylish filmette. Then thirty or forty dignitaries were shuffled onto stage waving tricolours, the PS flag, the rainbow and others, and still there was no Hamon. They kept waving the flags to electronica, like a Ionescu play. I was getting the giggles, but around me everyone was into it. Finally, finally, an entourage bounded onto stage, Hamon in the centre of them, and he took the mike.

Benoit Hamon looks like, well, he looks like Charles Aznavour. Sorry, but it’s this uniform French politicians have, a black suit, white shirt and a black tie, which Hamon rocks out with best of them. Wednesday’s crack about being a piece of evenly coloured inert meat was a little unfair; in any other contest, Benoit Hamon would be one of the more exciting candidates around. Though he is something of a dull speaker, taking to an extreme the rhythmic lists that French politicians love as a rhetorical device (“no more dishonour, no more humiliation, no more exploitation, no more division, no more extra charges at the dry cleaners, no more cloudy days …” — it’s incessant), and compensates for a lack of variation by shouting it out.

Deliberately or otherwise, the mic is set a little high; he fairly leaps to it. Whatever the crowd here thinks, Hamon himself must know it’s over — and that it being over for him, might mean that it’s over for the Parti Socialiste, for a long while or for good. He was giving it all this early evening, the sky a tricolour blue, the sun piercing through the leaves of the plane trees, because he had nothing to run on but the energy of hope. “Faire Battre Le Coeur De la France,” the PS’ slogan reads (“Make France’s heart beat” gets it best) — and the PS have dealt with their image as that of being a failed establishment with a forced energy. It’s the same thing mainstream centre-left parties do everywhere, the ALP not least, that slightly daggy Christian youf sort of big smile, running around, love the kids, sort of thing. To his credit, despite the chaos, he’s giving it his all for the crowd, which has now, finally, filled la Republique.

“The worst enemy of our republic is apathy.” What makes it all the more ironic/tragic/plain funny is that Hamon is from the left of the PS, and quit Francois Hollande’s ministry when Hollande moved towards the centre, announcing a doctrine of “social liberalism” — innocent enough in the Anglosphere, in France it had the appeal of “let’s all get anal crabs” — and the PS started to fall apart. Hamon’s victory in the primaries created the space for Macron to depart and create an independent centrist candidacy; but any success Hamon might have had was blocked by the rise of Melenchon, another, and much earlier, PS departee.

This night, Hamon’s appeal was all about the “gauche”, the left — he said “gauche” so often he may as well have been John-Michael Howson. “I love the left socialist, the left ecologist, the left communist, the left of the young,” he said to rising cheers. He quoted Fanon. Fanon! Throughout the afternoon/evening the following people had been quoted and named: Diderot, Louise Michel, Sartre, Camus, Genet, Langston Hughes, Fanon, Trotsky, De Gaulle, Gide, Piketty, Jean Moulin, Arundhati Roy, Apollinaire, and those were the ones I caught. In the yawning quarter hours when DJ Rag had doofed it out between speakers I had hallucinated Bill Shorten: “You know, as Hannah Arendt said of Simone Weil, d’you follow the footy …?”

Hamon is compelling on his own terms. The PS’ angle is “Republican” — they’re trying to steal the idea that they represent the republic from, well, the Republicans Party (UPR, as was) — and that to vote for them is to vote for France. Hamon is talking about all the things Melenchon is talking about, massive public investment, basic income, democratisation of everyday life, a renegotiation of EU and NATO relations, and arguing that he was, unlike the right, seeking not “the spectacle of the end of the world, but the end of the world of spectacle”. So now Guy Debord is being invoked at a Guy Debord moment.

Hamon’s problem is that no matter how convincing he is on the charge that Melenchon would not be able to deliver on his program, the feeling around is that the PS would not even try to. There is a level of hate for the PS that is almost visceral, a sense that it has spent 35 years failing to deliver a transformative program, that its elite is so wired into global capital — represented in mega corps such as Sodexo, Club Med, etc — so intermarried as to form a new Versailles, and so complacent about the status quo as to make the Shorten shadow cabinet look like the Anabaptists of Munster.

[Rundle: in Europe, history’s logic has reversed]

The crowd assembled here — 20,000; to give context, the post-Bataclan massacre manifestation yielded 1.6 million — was on his side, and he gave them the biz, that despite all the appeal of new start-ups, the PS represented a democratic socialist tradition. Le Pen and the National Front barely got a mention; the attack was on Melenchon, who has been equivocal about the official hate against Putin, etc, and has made some slightly daffy remarks about France leaving the EU, and joining the South American Bolivarian Union, established by Chavez, via French Guyana. His town hall meetings by hologram — he had seven on Tuesday — had proved fodder for the speakers: “I want a president, not a hologram of one.”

But oh dear it all sounds hopeless, lame and over, especially when Hamon starts referring to “la jeunesse”, the youf, how he loves the youf, and then starts reeling off names: “Caroline, Eric, Francoise, Bilal …”, hitting every multiculti button he can. This appeal to youth, from a party that has been deserted by them, has a vampiric touch: please support our project so that we will die before it does, with the illusion that it persists. (There’s a lot of it about, especially in Australia).

Hamon rounded it out with an appeal to the notion of the republic, that it was, in its French version, worth defending and extending, and as he ended on “Vive La Republique” his assembled delegates broke into La Marseillaise, and the crowd soon followed, and I sang along, an anthem you can throw yourself into, without any reservation or hesitation. Among the flags, as we sang, the fists went up, white, brown, and black, men’s thick-bunched fingers, and women’s elegant and beringged ones; lean-skinned and wrinkled, rough and smooth. That was worth being there for.

News-wise, it would have been better to be in Marseilles, where Marine Le Pen was running a rally of spitting hatred, in a city become a harbour of spite. But the PS is a party that stretches back, in one way or another, to the Paris Commune, formed a couple of years after La Place de la Republique was created. Maybe it will survive and revive, maybe not; the very difficult question for anyone on the left in France is whether one should try to help it do so, or not. Nothing is more honourable than defending a struggling party against its enemies; nothing more contemptible than fearful loyalty to one whose historical role has been decisively superseded. The party’s enthusiasts, streaming out of the square — barriers coming down (24 hours before tonight’s shooting on the Champs-Elysees) and DJ Rag starting up again — will have to work out the answer to that. They will have a long, long, long time to do so.

*all dialogue translated from my affreux French, and notes on such. So it’s possible I didn’t say anything like what I suggest I did. “Excusez moi, je suis journaliste Australienne. C’est spectacle, c’est deux heurs en retard. C’est normale?” could well have come out as “I’m beyond (dehors) retarded. Regular or what?”)

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW