Guy Rundle: French elections

“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack …

“Come on, come on what’s happening?”

“Why are we waiting?”

In the belly of the hyper-modern Expo building, youngish men and women, neatly dressed office types, were getting restless. The Expo park is done in basic units, like the whole thing had been bought from IKEA, bold primary colours. That applied to the neat young men and women around me, too: neat yellow V-neck sweaters and blue-and-white shirts, shades lodged in luxurious, primped hair (vied for a seat on the Metro yesterday with a chap almost identical to me, except for his head of rich grey-black, compared to my bald pate.

I slid into the place.

“Ha,” I said. “Because you have horses”.*

Women in neat suits. Even the young are neat, business student types. Young and youngish, 20s and 30s, not many either side, they’re all exasperated now, the program running 60 minutes late.

“En Marche!” a giant poster reads at the entrance, with the neat face of Emmanuel Macron grinning out. But it’s on one of those ready-made stretchers, like you get for a sales conference, like it was picked up from Office Depot an hour earlier. “Ensemble, France!” the tricolour backdrop to the stage reads, but it looks like a Target promo of sans-culottes.

Early evening in a business park in northern France. Doesn’t feel like much is marching on here. Relieved only by the crowd’s exasperation. They exhale, shake their heads, fill their cheeks and exhale again, put hands on hips, or hold them out in appeal to each other.

“What is going on?”

“I don’t know do I? Do you, do you know what is going on?”

“How would I know what I going on?”

And so on.

Bon, enfin. It’s entertaining, not quite as diverting as an actual political appearance, but a show nevertheless. There are about three and a half thousand of us here, and I suspect that there are not many locals, on the outskirts of Arras, a small city to the north-east of Paris. The city is heartbreakingly beautiful at its centre; the outskirts are a tangle of those housing-business park-office park etc that the French lay up for miles on end. There’s a discreet row of buses at one end, half-hidden behind a building.

“Were you bussed in?” I hope I asked one young woman, a business student in Lille — “hope” because that’s the sort of sentence that could really go wrong — and she demurred. They’re all Macron supporters, banners and the works, but I don’t know how many would be there of their own accord. French pollies sure know how to piss their supporters off. There were speakers with jokes that I knew were bad without even understanding them, and the strangest group of people I have ever seen assembled to stand behind a speaker, every scruff among the crowd, like outpatients from a burns’ unit.

Later, we would find out why: Macron had been ambushed at a factory in Amiens, good old Whirlpool, a joint in Macron’s hometown, about to be moved to Poland, and which Macron has unaccountably failed to visit, even after the move was announced. He went there today, and promptly got ambushed by angry, pro-Le Pen workers. French workers don’t muck about; kidnapping the boss during a strike for a few hours or even days is a hallowed tradition, and the last thing he wanted was for his security to extricate him. He stood there and copped it sweet, while workers yelled at him, in that French way: where you yell at someone for five minutes, then let them reply, then wait a beat and yell the exact same thing again, and this can go on for hours.

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

Macron had been totally, unforgivably wrong-footed here. Les Whirpoolistes are on strike, with full-picket, a strike its union wasn’t crazy on having. Macron went to meet with the company and union leaders at the chamber of commerce, and Le Pen, hearing about it, sped up from the northern outskirts of Paris, and hit the picket line, where she was treated like a hero, as the cameras rolled. He has a message that is no message, about getting a better deal, about “rebalancing” Europe (of course, Polish workers would say, getting some mid-tech industry, is “rebalancing”). Le Pen has a rightist, leftist, whateverist message: they won’t be allowed to go. She talks like them, she looks like them: big-jawed, broad-shouldered, dressed, well, I reckon she’s got some special ‘dowdy’ consultant flown in from Birmingham or something. Near-impossibly for a Francaise, she has perfected a perfect stylelessness.

Macron is thin, elegant, you can just tell he works out, body-shapes, to fit his suit. The sight of him among the Amiens workers, head Eloi among the Morlocks who had risen to importune him, was just another confirmation to me of how physical this new class divide is, how visceral: the elite and the masses just look so goddamn different now, thin v fat, shaped v sprawling, taller v shorter, skin like we were different species, the even nourished tan versus battered and blotched, styled clothes, neat and shaped and draping, versus chain-store baggy. Twenty-five, 30 years ago, our very different fates were not advertised by wholly different bodies. The boss had a suit. He was as fat and wheezy as you were. That’s the appeal of Trump. Twenty grand on that man at any time, and he still looks like a bloke who runs a three-press print shop in Dayton, Ohio, his third wife in the front office doing the books. Macron looks like he was sent from the future, and his wife …

Ah. Let me risk wrath and tell you about Madame Macron, Brigitte. She is — this is more French than a frog riding a lemon to get an eclair — she is the 64-year-old former teacher of the 39-year-old Macron. OK, strap in. They met while she was directing a school production of a Milan Kundera play Jacques et son Maitre,** and he was the 15-year-old lead. His parents thought he was having a thing with Brigitte’s daughter, 15-year-old Laurence (yes, daughter), who is now, of course, his 39-year-old stepdaughter, and the mother of several of his step-grandchildren. Ah, you threw up in your mouth a little then, didn’t you? They removed him from the school, and he vowed he would marry Brigitte when she divorced her husband, a banker she married in 1974, three years before Macron was born. Brigitte and Emmanuel – could there be a better name for this couple – were married in 2007. A young man, a grandmotherly woman beside? Ha! She’s gold of hair and skin, and sports black leather jackets, because this is Frrrrrrance.

Does this matter? It shouldn’t, because love blah blah blah and there are any number of Guardian articles about this — there will be a whole Guardian edition on this, I would warrant — but of course it does. Anglo news sources say the French accept it, but they really don’t. “If he needs a second mother, I don’t want him running France” was a phrase I had heard reported up the country a few days earlier, and the sentiment is widespread among some classes. Lucky for Macron, it’s pretty much the one that runs between him and Le Pen’s National Front. For those who don’t like it, they really don’t like it, a sense that the elites don’t look like they do, live like they do.

That’s a tangent, but it was pinging around my head in the long wait for Macron, in this Google logo expo parc, this non-France, non-anywhere. Last week’s wait for Hamon in La Place de la Republique had been Debordian, the empty spectacle in the revolutionary city. This was Houellebecqian, the world on the outskirts of itself. But finally, finally, Macron came bounding to the front of us. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry we were- there was a bit of fun …”, and he’s off into a speech.

[Rundle: for France’s traditional left, le fin]

Later, people were saying that his encounter with the Amiens workers was the start of the Macron campaign, because he basically had to talk his way out of the crush. Should that be the case, they will have done him a favour, because the first three days after Sunday’s result were a nothing, Macron holed up with powerbrokers as Marine Le Pen blitzed the country, her canny team coming up with one stunt after another. Fourteen days she’s got to swing this 65-35 or even 70-30 divide — if that’s accurate — and she’s everywhere, always on the cafe-bar TV, at morning markets in the dark, with fisherfolk on the coast, back in Paris with pissed-off, gang-harassed white banlieusards, there seem to be three of her.

She resigned the leadership of the National Front on Tuesday, a stunt. She ambushed Macron at Whirlpool, a stunt. But there is a sense of life and fight about it. To me, it has exactly the spirit and air of Trump’s fightback after the conventions, when he broke through by having four, five rallies a day, and made the determination and stamina itself an electoral force. Le Pen doesn’t have the time he did to catch up, but she’s got the same determination. And Macron has shown the same bewildering diffidence as did Hillary, when she disappeared for weeks into a whirl of fundraisers, seen only getting in and out of limos. He has more reason — reason? temptation — to be complacent, more, if that were possible, to lose. France is the hat-trick. Marine Le Pen’s highly unlikely victory would be decisive, because it was so. The narrow Brexit and Trump wins would be resituated entirely. Macron would be the man who lost the West. He should have been out fighting from Day One.

He is now. Any sense that he might have stuck to the script on economics and responsibility had gone out the window. He had given a “voice of reason” speech at the chamber of commerce in Amiens, before being monstered. Now he was riled up, and casting himself as the one on the defence: “I will not surrender France to Madame Le Pen. I will not concede that to her, I will not become a demagogue,” he said, banging the podium.

“On this site we remember the horrors , the human barbarity” — Arras is the site of a battle that saw close to 100,000 dead, 100,000 maimed – “the old hatred of the neighbour, and we won’t go back to that.” He pulled out a gold memorial medal, and banged that on the podium, in a non-demagogic way. “We should not fear the National Front, we should condemn them.” It’s good for the crowd, a little surprising for them. This is a long way from the line he’s been selling throughout: the rationalist, the balancer, with the five-year investment plan of 50 billion euros, and the public service modernisation, and the reducing the welfare bill by reducing the unemployment rate.

Le Pen’s critics, Macron’s supporters, charge that she is promising all things to everyone without a plan. But Macron’s has as many gaps as hers, if the aim is genuinely structural change, and not simply letting things run much as they are, with a little tuning up. The difference is that Macron’s plan has the feel of rationality, it is at one with this charmless efficient expo parc, home of these mysterious events that create value in mysterious ways.

To be fair, the only honest plan for structural change on offer was Fillon’s (Melenchon’s relied a little too much on the idea that the robots would be here the day after tomorrow, Tuesday at the latest). Fillon said there’d be change, and there would be pain, and it’s just possible that the scandals that brought him down served as much as pretext for a slice of people to abandon him, as a true judgement on his character.

That was Fillon’s tragedy. Macron’s might be that, well, he doesn’t seem terribly real, as a human being. The outrage, banging the medal, that sounded confected. The diffidence, the reluctance after first-round victory, that seems real. It’s of a piece with the fatal, the beguiling complacency that slipped into both the “Remain” and Clinton camps, a malaise that the new power elites cannot avoid because it is a symptom of their deep desire not to do politics, their belief that it is essentially over, yielded to a centrist administration with a mix of social market/neoliberal settings. It is a fatal affliction, hard to resist. It gives Le Pen et al huge targets, and they have the gusto of politics on their side.

So yes, Le Pen is running way behind Macron. The numbers do not compare to Brexit or Trump. But history happens, even in the expo park. The degree to which people, in the Francophonie, in the Anglosphere, are reassuring themselves that Le Pen just cannot win has a very eerie ring to it. Outside, after the triumph, and the shouting and the singing, there’s Arras old town, Roman regional capital, the old EU, lit up. I feel disoriented, like I’m in Geelong, waiting for the Werribee bus, France and not-France, and that seems to be the feeling all over. Could he really lose this, Emmaneul le fataliste? And what would things look like then?

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

— Siegfried Sassoon, The General

*cheveux/chevaux, hair/horses.

**from a novel, Jacques le Fataliste et son Maitre, by the philosophe Diderot, a riposte to the enlightenment from within the enlightenment. The symbols lie thick as chestnuts, you just scoop ’em up.

Peter Fray

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