A French Political Rally

I don’t know much about French politics, but I’ve come to recognize French politicians.

And recent affairs on the political scene here in France are a welcome relief, for a little while at least, from the horrific political sideshow acts in the U.S.

France is in the middle of a presidential election campaign, and while you can see in its unfolding some American inspiration, for want of a better word, in the use of social media among French politicians and a lengthening of the campaign season – it’s nothing like the grueling torture of an American presidential election.

The stakes are high in France, as they were in the U.S., as voters worry about their financial future and their personal safety, as people are being asked to choose between openness and closed-mindedness, between welcome and xenophobia, between voting “for,” in the words of the Parti Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, and voting against – that is, voting for those who are anti-everything, such as the far-right Marine Le Pen. Between choosing hope or hate. Unfortunately, with the rightward swing in national attitudes everywhere, hate plays far better than hope among people who prefer to blame others for what they believe is wrong with the way their lives have turned out.

The recent elections in the U.S. have added further urgency to the French political campaign – everyone fears the worst, and many on the other side of hate are doing what they can to elect someone who may be actually prevent France from closing itself off from the world, like its ally across the Atlantic seems to be doing.

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The U.S. is a big country, and everything related to a political campaign is bigger – especially involving money. But political commercials are unknown in France, which is a relief. Still, you can get your fill of politics on the many national talk shows devoted to the day’s events in France and I’ve come to recognize the usual guests who appear on these shows, too: journalists, political scientists (though I rather prefer the French word politologues) and academics who offer their conservative or liberal points of view.

Being French, they don’t simply toss out rehearsed one-liners – though they make their positions clear immediately – but they tend to talk and talk and talk around and about and up and down a topic or question, and they do what the French do best: enjoy hearing themselves speak. I enjoy hearing them speak too – I’ve become more French in that I am now more inclined to find entertainment value in listening to talking heads blow hot air at each other over the day’s news. This is probably because the French experts – unlike many of their American counterparts – actually know how to express themselves.

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As in the U.S., money has played a large part in the French campaign here, too – but unlike the enormous sums tossed around in an American election, the money that’s coloring this election is a misuse of public funds. The sums are significant – at least to the average French person who works for a living – a few hundred thousand euros in total – but money in France is different from money in the U.S. It’s respected, but not the summum bonum of a fruitful life for the French as it is for many Americans.

Still, money taints, whether euros or dollars. The Republican candidate François Fillon, who at best resembles an undertaker who hasn’t yet mastered the skill of faking empathy, has been accused of misusing funds to employ his wife Penelope in nonexistent jobs, to the tune of about €500,000 over the course of a decade, as well as his children (he employed one of his children for legal work as a lawyer, before she actually became a lawyer).

Fillon also more recently accepted gifts of custom-made suits, worth about €50,000, from a well-connected lawyer friend. In response to a question about whether it was appropriate to accept a gift from someone who might want to demand some sort of favor in return, Fillon said, “Et alors?” Meaning – “So?” This definitely didn’t play well with most people.

“They’re not even the best custom-made suits,” sniffed my friend Dominique, who’s left-leaning generally and definitely voting left in this election. Still, her point was that if you’re going to let yourself be corrupted by the finer things, at least let the bribe be worth your selling your soul. The larger concern is that Fillon sees nothing wrong in accepting gifts, or of using public funds to employ a member of the family (this latter is legal, if unpopular). This is troubling for many French voters, who are appalled at how out of touch Fillon is with the current distaste for the abuse of privilege, he the descendant of a stoneworker who has given himself the airs of a put-upon bourgeois.

“The real problem,” said Jean-Luc Melanchon, a far-left candidate who speaks very well but can be something of a self-righteous scold, “is that he doesn’t see that this is a problem.”

Marine Le Pen, herself an odious, smug xenophobe with the mocking sneer of someone who thinks everyone is beneath contempt (especially foreigners, and most especially Muslims), has also been accused of misappropriating public funds. But like her patron saint, the current lamentable holder of the American presidency, she accuses the legal system, rather than herself, of being corrupt.

To an American, such French political scandals are diverting, especially compared to the governmental horrors unfolding at home. But you can also find enthusiasm and actual joy in some French political events. Earlier this week, I went with a friend to a big “meeting” – the French use the English word for a political rally – of the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, at Bercy, a huge arena in the 12th arrondissement.

Hamon, who is trailing in the polls, behind the youthful Emmanuel Macron, the ex-finance minister and former banker who is expected to win in the second round of elections (he may very well become president), the detestable Marine Le Pen, and even the beleaguered François Fillon, has been unable to rally his party around his candidacy. He beat former prime minister Manuel Valls in the primary, but Valls has not given Hamon his support (he seems to be figuring out his next steps, regardless of who wins the election). The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon has drawn away to himself a fair share of Socialist Part voters. Melanchon trails the other candidates in the polls – and he pretty much splits the left-wing vote with Hamon. But at the packed Benoît Hamon rally – or meeting – the mood was triumphant, hopeful, spirited.

Three French pop and rock groups played before the candidate arrived – Les Yeux Noirs, Debout sur le Zinc and General Elektriks – and they were surprisingly good, even for an American dubious of how entertainment is used at most political gatherings. Hamon also attracted some big names behind him, who spoke to the crowd about why they support him and his candidacy. These included the economist Thomas Piketty (author of the bestselling Capitalism in the 21st Century), the mayor of Paris, Annie Hidalgo, and the widely admired (though reviled on the right) Christiane Taubira, former Minister of Justice under François Hollande.

Hamon, who in public debates tends to be more soft-spoken than the righteous Melanchon and the strident Le Pen (though he’s more energetic than the morose Fillon), was evidently touched by the stirring show of support in the arena, which was filled with many young as well as older voters, and where many of those present waved flags for the Socialist Party, the European Union or the green party.

Hamon’s appeals for inclusion appeal to a wide swath of the population (even if Le Pen’s message of exclusion has fervent support as well). Hamon spoke with force and clarity. He urged voters to be engaged rather than to retreat into themselves, to be present for the world rather than to isolate themselves from it, to be part of a dialogue for positive change.

It was a real message of hope. But who knows if hope will sell come the elections in a few weeks? Hope certainly didn’t work in the U.S. last November (though resistance might be effective in the coming months, and Americans seem to have learned some of the finer points of mass demonstrations from the French). But although hatred may win an election, it’s become obvious that it cannot govern a country.

The French are about to choose, as Benoît Hamon said at one point during his roughly 90-minute speech, not only what kind of country they want, but what kind of people they wish to be. I am not French, but on this afternoon I found myself fervently pro-Hamon, and I want to be part of the country he wishes to lead.

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