Anxiety in the Dordogne
Every afternoon on RMC INFO, a French commercial radio network where phone-ins are the order of the day, the concerned but knowing voice of the sex counsellor Brigitte Lahaie can be heard fielding calls from listeners/participants. Her motto last week was ‘sexuality at the heart of a harmonious life’. One caller wanted to know if it was OK, as a woman, to be watching X-rated movies – isn’t that a man’s thing? – oh, and by the way, how do you go about removing the hair around your anus? It was all right, Brigitte thought, for girls to enjoy a bit of pornography (she’s an ex-porn star herself). And on the revealing supplementary, she felt that a bog-standard depilatory would probably be fine; maybe the caller’s partner would like to help her with the application.
Brigitte Lahaie is the kind of person who could not look at a pile of gravel without wanting to help it get in touch with itself or feel more ‘harmonious’. Hers is the voice of calm – an eroticised, profoundly apolitical calm, despite its honourable feminism – in a country on the political rack, desperate to confess at length how it let a miserable Neo-Fascist get through the first round of the Presidential vote, yet uncertain where to begin the story.
Four days after polling day, Brigitte Lahaie found herself caught up in a discussion about cheating – matrimonial, or plain old sexual, betrayal. A sad man with a sad story came on the line. I didn’t catch it all, but evidently things hadn’t worked out. Madame had cheated on him, I think. And even if she hadn’t, he was sure she had. There was some stuff about what couples expect from each another. Might he do the same? Brigitte inquired. Had he ever? Well, yes, he’d felt attracted . . . Attracted I understand, says Brigitte, but did you go the whole way?
For a moment it was like some fantasy future, a bleak one, in which a New Age dictatorship had proscribed all discussion of politics and the only way to get around the ban was to litter the compulsory regime-speak with clumsy allusions. The line of questioning, after all, bore every resemblance to a soul-searching inquiry into the betrayal of the Fifth Republic by a substantial vote – nearly 20 per cent if you add the totals for Le Pen and Bruno Mégret – for the extreme Right. With the election still unfinished (I’m writing this at the end of April), it made sense to ask the caller whether he’d gone ‘the whole way’ or not. For his part, he’d clearly felt betrayed by the Republic in the first place, otherwise it would never have come to this. And so on. Summing up, Brigitte Lahaie’s studio guest ventured the suggestion that it was wrong to expect too much from one’s partner, and that faith in the eternal immutability of relationships was often where the problem set in.
Other people have been saying the same thing, uncoded, since the results of the Presidential first round came through. It is one of the attractive Enlightenment hang-overs of French punditry, visible in much of the press, to believe that when a model isn’t working properly, it’s merely a question of getting the thing right, either by tinkering or by starting again from scratch. If a constitutional arrangement can produce nine years of unsatisfactory cohabitation between the Head of State and the Legislature, followed by a Presidential election in which a Far Right candidate is still on his feet to contend the second round, then that’s a lesson about the model – probably that 43 years is long enough and it’s time for a new one. The trouble is that in France you don’t get new constitutions by dint of reason. You need violence, crisis, contestation – a bourgeois revolution, say; or an 1848, followed by a coup d’etat; a war with Prussia, or Nazi Germany, or the FLN. There are those who think that the tradition may be kept up this time around and that the joli mois de mai 2002 will produce levels of disorder comparable to those of May ‘68, as a ritual preparation for constitutional change.
Vol. 24 No. 11 · 6 June 2002
I enjoyed Jeremy Harding's Diary on the French Presidential election (LRB, 9 May) but I would question his doctor's confident judgment that it was all about nostalgia for Vichy, Pétain and the First World War. The election materials of Mme Jaboulet-Vercherre, our local FN candidate in the forthcoming legislative elections, focus on crime and immigration, but make no attempt to capitalise on enthusiasm for a putative Fascist tradition. The mechanics of the French election system are largely to blame for the embarrassing spectacle of the second round, but the widespread and growing appeal of the nationalist Right is not so easily explained away. It is a Europe-wide phenomenon, and if Britain had PR it would be much more visible there, too. When we think of Europe, we still for some reason forget about Eastern Europe. Xenophobic nationalism is highly developed there, and with a few exceptions we have nurtured this kind of politics wherever we have found it – assuming, I imagine, that the infection would never spread in our direction. Whether it is anti-Russian policies in Estonia, the exclusion of Roma from mainstream society in Central Europe or – perhaps the most striking case – the violent xenophobia of the Kosovo Albanians, we have apparently accepted the principle that democracy and xenophobia go hand in hand, to the point where what looks like extreme nationalism is almost a required qualification for having a country in the first place.
Le Vieux St Pierre
Since he first ran in a Presidential election in 1974, Jean-Marie Le Pen has been telling his audiences that the French political classes are lying to them. He is not wrong. Mainstream politicians of all parties have maintained, even more than in most other industrial democracies, a pas devant les enfants approach to difficult issues of all kinds, including the funding of political parties, economic policy, the often unfathomable decisions of the public sector and France's role in Europe (and the world). Yet never until this election has the press dared to present clear evidence that the two leading candidates have lied systematically and on the record (one about personal corruption and the other about his past political affiliations). Not only did neither candidate make the least sign of apology, but their mainstream rivals maintained a discretion about these revelations that can only have fuelled a sense that members of the establishment are all in it together (the humbling of Helmut Kohl stands in interesting contrast). Now that the second round is over, this same establishment has congratulated itself on saving the Republic; there is no sign that any of the mainstream parties have learned any lessons. Le Pen could not have written their script better himself; he is now probably too old to reap the benefits, but he has younger lieutenants who must be delighted.
Université de Toulouse
It was misleading to say, as I did, that the count, in the French Presidential elections, is ‘organised at canton level’. In the regional press, round here at any rate, the results are published by canton, but a breakdown of each canton result shows the vote in each of its member communes. For the purposes of voting, the ballots of one or two obscure communes – no shortage of these – may be totted up under the aegis of a larger one. On 5 May, I had the good fortune to see the mayor of our commune deliver his citizens’ second-round ballots at the Mairie where I was watching the count. The ballots go onto a pair of spikes – one for Chirac, one for Le Pen – on each of the counters’ tables and it was with some relief that the onlookers watched the paper high-rise climbing fast on the Chirac spikes. It made me think of the great RPR scam in Paris, when Chirac was mayor, and now, it turns out, in quite a lot of places: awarding public housing contracts to construction companies in return for a major contribution to the party’s coffers. That’s how big building has always gone on in Chirac territory, whether it’s bricks and mortar or ballots on a spike. Vive la République.