Anxiety in the Dordogne

Jeremy Harding

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.

What do they know? I haven’t the faintest idea; I live in a backwater miles from Paris. In my part of the world the nearest big town is Bordeaux – a stuck-up place by any standards – but it seems to me a glorious urban idyll; people dress well, the wines are serious, and there are useful things – an airport, an Ikea. That’s to the west. To the east, there’s the distant prospect of Périgueux or Bergerac, both less glamorous than Bordeaux but equally attractive to the country-dweller: one might go in that direction for children’s trainers which last longer than a fortnight, or permission to remain in France for longer than three months. But it’s a bit of an outing. Here in the South-West, at the junction of three departments – the Gironde, the Dordogne and Charente-Maritime – it all feels less like part of a highly centralised Republic which has tried to delegate a smidgin of power from Paris to the regions, and more like a world of its own which looks on the capital, when it can bear to look at all, with dismay and suspicion.

The President is elected by direct universal suffrage – a national head-count organised at canton level. Our local canton is part of the Dordogne, a poor, rural department where migrant influx (predominantly British, very wrinkly) is not an issue. Our deputy to the National Assembly is a Communist (two of the other three Dordogne deputies are socialists; the fourth is a member of the Radical/Citoyen/Vert alliance). When you look at the Le Pen vote on a map of France, it’s as if someone had grabbed a thick felt-tip pen and hysterically reinforced as much of the national frontier as possible in black, beginning at Pas-de-Calais, moving clockwise around the eastern perimeter of the country and down along the dreaded Mediterranean – ‘an Arab Lake’, as the Ethiopians used to say of the Red Sea – petering out somewhere east of the Hautes Pyrénées (where Jospin took the vote). I live well clear of those areas, and of the others – the bigger suburbs – that opted for Le Pen; though I am close to Lot-et-Garonne, another world within a world defined by seasonal migrant labour and permanent migrant retirement (British again), with quite a few pied noir residents. The balmy cantons of Lot-et-Garonne also went the way of the FN this time around.

Of the five thousand and some registered voters in our own canton, about two thousand polled in the little town a few kilometres away, where my children attend school. The overall count in the canton favoured Chirac with 23 per cent of the vote; Jospin lagged seven points behind, and Le Pen took third place. In town, however, Le Pen pipped Jospin by three votes. Mme G, a nurse whom I know through the children’s football club, told me she saw the local result go up outside the Town Hall, and how stunned she’d been. From the Town Hall she went to a TV set and heard the trail for the forthcoming national result. ‘“Prepare for a surprise,” it said. And then we understood – the same thing must have happened in the country as a whole.’

Our town was interesting not just because it was a faithful miniature of the overall picture, with a high abstention figure, but because FN voters were obviously unwilling to publicise the slightest indication of their voting intentions. In the run-up to an election, every registered voter receives a package from the local town hall which includes the bulletins, or voting papers, each about the size of a postcard with the name of one of the candidates – 16 in all on this occasion – printed in the middle. At the polling station the same ballot papers are available. In the old days, when – as you’ll hear it said – the constitutional mechanisms of the Fifth Republic were working better, there were simply fewer ballot papers (in the first round of the 1995 Presidential, there were only nine candidates). So it was possible for a voter interested in discretion to come in, take all or most of the ballot papers from the table in less than twenty seconds, and enter the booth to put the name of a candidate in an envelope. That way, in a small station with fewer than a hundred voters, and polling officers who might recall how you jilted their brother or shot their dog, it was possible to vote without giving much away.

What seems to have happened in our town, an official told me, is that the FN voters took the Le Pen ballot with them to the polling station from the package they’d received at home and kept it in their pocket. On arriving at the polling station, he conjectured, they would have picked up a Chirac or a Jospin ballot in case any of the election officers were taking an improper interest, retired to the booth and slipped in the Le Pen ballot brought from home. My informant deduced this from the fact that there were far more ballots left on the Le Pen pile, and far fewer on the piles for the other two, than the final tally at the Town Hall suggested. In other words, it was important for FN voters that their choice go entirely unknown, because it would be seen as shameful, or at least controversial.

Mme G told me that she liked to go through the results in the local paper, looking for the very smallest returns, and speculating as to whose grandmother was pitted against whose first cousin in a microcosmic replica of the great national drama. Thus the epic struggle for the Presidency in Temple Leguyon, up the way from our town, gave Jospin (five votes) a decisive lead over Chirac, who tied with four other candidates (two votes each). In Temple Leguyon there was a very high abstention rate. Of the 39 registered voters, only 21 went to the polls. Le Pen received no votes, which in a place this small might be reckoned a fair performance, given the upbeat mood of the Front. I’d like to think they’ll enjoy similar successes throughout the Hexagon in Round Two. As for Mme G, she was a bit too troubled by the size of the Le Pen vote to get a lot of fun from her election-gazing this year.

One of the doctors in town is a cheerful, politically active man whom I first saw outside surgery hours when the primary school was threatened with the loss of one of its teaching posts. At the time, there was an angry meeting of parents and teachers, over which he and the school’s directrice presided with great finesse. The difficulty, it was agreed at the time, lay in the end with the Ministry, and the Ministry, of course, is in Paris, where decisions, it’s felt, are made on the basis of national parameters drawn up on paper, and then air-dropped to local communities without any regard for issues on the ground. The meeting resolved that the school should be ‘occupied’ by teachers and parents. A few days into the occupation, following some well timed publicity in the local press and a handful of teachers and parents doorstepping the departmental education officer, the Ministry backed down and the post was saved. It was the doctor, among others, who had met with the departmental office and put the case for keeping the post, this before the occupation began. The combination would have been persuasive (the arguments, based on catchment demographics and a local baby-boom, certainly were).

I should have understood the occupation of the primary school as a small-scale disillusion with the Constitutional mise-en-place in France as a whole. And especially with the old Gaullist cornerstone of the strong executive, its Presidential component now so addled by cohabitation that, three or four hundred miles from Paris, the whole system looks like a shabby pretension, all the more intolerable for the fact that it still has the power to disdain, and condescend, and imagine it knows better. But that particular optique must have passed me by. Why think such grand thoughts when all you’re doing is standing outside your local school, in a place you barely know, supporting a very different education for your children from the one they might have got in Britain? Besides, I’m fresh from the city and still too sympathetic, for the tastes of people round these parts, to the difficult project of national government. No doubt the advocates of a Sixth Republic are sympathetic to it too, but they’re also thinking some of the bigger, darker thoughts I couldn’t manage as they survey the territorial gains of the latest ballot-box insurgent.

The doctor, I’m pretty sure, thought the electorate had been hoist with its own petard. We believed we could abstain, he said, or vote Le Pen, as a way of putting the pressure on Chirac and Jospin, or at least sending a distress signal. But Jospin’s ship has gone down, and Chirac is sailing too fast to inevitable victory to be bothered with the little people in the lifeboats, so the gambit failed on both counts.

You may not be able to tell a voting preference from the look of a person’s underwear or his blood count, but doctors in small communities get an unobstructed view of people’s minds that others don’t. The local Le Pen vote, the doctor thought, was an elderly vote, strictly troisième age, despite the small-fry, under-fifties FN lodge in town, and he read the figures – 200 or so out of 1500 cast – backwards via Vichy, through Pétain, to a folk-memory of World War One, and the noble summons to death in the trenches rather than mutiny. A couple of thefts and an arson attempt in a sleepy town are enough to make a proportion of elderly people reach out with trembling hands for the disciplines of la patrie. It’s a game Le Pen knows very well, and he can play it across the generation gap, out in the big conurbations, where he sees all the afflatus and hybridity and day-to-day negotiation that are so offensive to bullies and prigs. If France turned into wall-to-wall suburbia one day, like something out of J.G. Ballard, there might still be a place for his politics, but there’s an awful lot of space to fill. Where, I wonder, would he fit into my current, bumpkin fantasy: that of a post-national future, with a few dozen vast, well-run cities, bastions of wealth and tolerance, surrounded by a vindictive, barely governed hinterland.

Yet it’s as though Le Pen were already touting a version of that nightmare. ‘La France’ would be his big, leafy ville familiale, purged of all but a handful of faithful, non-white servants. The country’s 4.5 million immigrants would somehow melt away, or accept repatriation hand-outs; the crime rate would plummet; the cream of Gallic youth could play tennis or volleyball without being mugged by Arab scum on the way back from the state-subsidised salle polyvalente; everyone would marry once but breed often (and correctly); corporate greed would be an export-only vice; globalisation would retrench; the rest of the world could go to hell.

The challenging thing about Le Pen’s agenda is to distinguish it from some of the grand themes of republicanism in France. To all appearances, they could not be more opposed, and it’s an act of solidarity with French people, at this delicate stage, to keep on going by appearances. Even so, to an outsider – and that, by now, includes many French citizens – it can be hard to sort out the values of republicanism from the murk of the Républiques françaises one to five, or how to banish the demon of identity which stands watch over them. In faraway Meaux, where the meadow was mown by all the men, there are nearly thirty ethnic groups in a local population of only fifty thousand. In the country as a whole, millions of citizens (14 million according to one estimate) have an immigrant parent or grandparent, but it’s hard to find official statistics about the origin of citizens – gloriously hard, you might think – because to make a meal of people’s ‘origins’ is to undermine the republican project at its core.

Yet there is a hefty measure of identity politics in the expression of republicanism itself: it is specifically ‘French’, understood and championed as such, so that the virtues of the republic are more or less elided with those of the nation. And when people feel, as they do here, that things aren’t all they might be – in terms of healthcare, education, employment, crime – or that globalisation is running riot through their cherished ideas of community (a view to be found across the political spectrum), their anxiety focuses on the eclipse of French, rather than republican, traditions. Historically, France has always regarded itself as the monopoly owner and purveyor of republicanism – had it ever come about, the World Republic would, of course, have spoken French – so it’s no surprise to see how quickly the disdain for identity politics can turn into an ugly piece of exceptionalism in its own right. Bruno Mégret specifically defends what he calls ‘l’exception culturelle française’ on the tautologous grounds that it allows the French ‘to preserve their national identity’; tautology, I guess, is the surest way to keep clear of impurity.

A few days ago I spoke on the phone to the doctor’s younger daughter. She’s at one of the bigger lycées in the area. Everyone she knew was shocked by the result of the first round. Perhaps a dozen of her friends were old enough to vote, and of those perhaps half a dozen cast a ‘vote blanche’ – a blank slip that registers a protest vote for no one. I asked her how broad that protest was. Did it extend beyond French politics to the world at large? Was it in any sense Seattle-like? No, she was sure it wasn’t. They were exercising their right to vote in order to signal their disillusion with the political system as it stood in France. There had been a long discussion with the teachers. By the time it was over, she said, a deep sense of regret had set in among the blank-voters, and there were recriminations from students who would have cast a proper vote, had they been eligible. She thought that demonstrating was understandable – lycéens have done a lot of it, and you can see why those who can’t yet vote should want to make their views felt somehow or other. But she also thought it was a tricky proposition to go out on the street against an election result you didn’t like. But then the politics of the street is another feature of ‘l’exception culturelle française’ and there’ll be more of it before the Presidential race is run. May Day, by the time you read this, will have turned out to be memorable. For that, we have Vichy to thank. Vichy introduced the May Day holiday in France and Vichy is the dream that still inspires Le Pen.