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.

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