Selective visions of France

We have had number two son and family here last week. Their first child, Thomas, is three and of an age where all he wants is to go to the beach. And so for six days we obliged, including Cannes, Nice, St Maxime,  St Aygulf and Cap Dramont. Not for him the sun-drenched vineyards, quaint villages, endless woods and splendid mountain: just beaches. We have this feeling that his entire perception of France is one infinite stretch of sand and pebbles.

How you view France is a very topical issue. As most of the world knows French elections are looming. A recurrent theme here seems to be the need to do things differently to anywhere else and this certainly applies to the electoral system. It is very idiosyncratic and for those who are interested there is a good Wikipedia article on it (click here).  In summary, the President of the French Republic is elected to a five-year term in a two-round election. If, as seems likely, no candidate secures an absolute majority in the first round (23 April) a second round is held two weeks later between the two candidates who received the most votes. In theory this system allows citizens to vote with their hearts first time and then with their heads the second time. In practice, it means that most presidents attain power because the electorate ultimately felt they were less unlikeable than their opponent.

This year however the election is even more idiosyncratic than ever. There are five main candidates, all of whom could conceivably be president and the very strong possibility that the president may not come from either of the two traditional main parties. Indeed there are conceivable (and somewhat alarming) scenarios in which the president could come from either the extreme left or the extreme right.

Despite all this there doesn’t seem to be a lot of excitement down here. No one seems to be displaying banners or posters but then that may reflect the view in the countryside that, as with religion and sex, politics should be kept private and personal. There has however been some strong graffiti against Marine Le Pen of the Front National, a woman who makes Nigel Farage radiate gentle moderation.

Putin’s money = Marine [Le Pen]

It’s all pretty impenetrable but even as outsiders we sense that at the heart of the election is the question of French identity and the vision of France. Currently one of the most popular candidates, the youthful Emmanuel Macron, has his own vision: a liberal, dynamic France, open to business, technology and the world and one which will capitalize on Britain’s Brexit-induced economic and political decline.

There are however other visions. This week Le Pen came up with a curious and revealing statement about the notorious “Roundup” of 1942; an appalling event where some 13,000 Jews were arrested by French police and gendarmes and were herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver from where most of them were shipped off to Nazi concentration camps.[1] She said that France was not responsible for this. Underlying this was evidently the idea that the France that did this was not the real France: that was somehow De Gaulle in London and the – then very limited – Resistance. This mystical and romantic vision of an authentic, heroic France peopled by decent peasants, brave soldiers and pious leaders stretching back through the Revolution to Jean d’Arc, Charlemagne (and quite possibly beyond) is a heady and intriguing one. It is of course not a million miles away from that of “Merrie England” and equally cannot stand up to scrutiny. But in times of confusion and uncertainty – and we are still in a State of Emergency – such a vision of a glorious past, however fanciful, is attractive.  It’s not just small children who can have strange perspectives.

[1] Like so much of the nastiness of the Second World War and other wars the Roundup seems to have been largely carried out by ordinary men (and a few women) dutifully and unquestioningly carrying out their orders. And in case anybody is feeling any sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority the evidence from occupied Jersey and Guernsey is that, had the UK fallen under Nazi rule, British bureaucracy and British bobbies would probably have done something very similar.  Incidentally there are two good films on this: Le Rafle (The Round Up) and Elle s’appelait Sarah (Sarah’s Key). Le Rafle highlights the heroic role of Annette Monod, part of the great Monod Protestant dynasty, members of which were involved in the early days of Les Courmettes.

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