Layers of gray
Let me start with a vain introduction.
I am French.
Worse, I belong to the Parisian middle-class.
After needing 10 years to realize human life is theoretically possible outside of Paris and 10 more to realize it actually exists, I left Paris, and have lived outside France for most of the past 10 years.
Throughout this period, I actively worked on unparisianing myself.
This probably seems absurd, but, for me, being Parisian is associated with gray. Gray is more Parisian than Paris itself.
Gray is a color. Paris is visually quite gray, from its sidewalks to its buildings, from its roofs to its eternally clouded sky. Gray can be beautiful. Paris is beautiful.
Gray is also a state of being. Gray is inside. Gray is loneliness. Gray is sadness.
Once it is inside, gray takes over your outside. Your outside becomes layers of gray. Paris becomes an ocean of sadness.
Like clouds magnify sunsets, sadness magnifies beauty. Sadness is the mother of art. Paris is the city of arts.
It is hard to explain this grayness. It just is. But there is a singer who described it quite well in his own words.
Unparisianing myself has been challenging, almost like a lost cause. But I pride myself on certain achievements. I have learned to accept and appreciate things instead of criticizing them. I even sometimes express my appreciation with this odd facial expression called a smile.
I most often find value in blue skies and flowery meadows.
A key part of this process was distancing myself from French politics.
An annoying problem with certain parts of life that we consider real is that they most often unfold in a disappointing way. Hollywoodian scenarios seem too far away from those of our existence. Desperate efforts from our mums and marketing agencies to make us feel special most often fall flat. Example: our love lives.
French politics perfectly embodies this.
French history textbooks confidently teach us that France is a very special nation. It is the nation of the Enlightenment. It is the nation of artists and philosophers. It is the nation of great revolutions. We are a forefront democracy, a major promoter of human rights all over the world, a front-runner of progress. Most of all: We are free. We are equal. We are brothers (and sisters).
Textbooks are the theory, the ideal. French politics is the practice, the reality. The higher the ideal, the harder the fall. France is a country that looks on a mystified past to forget and deny its endless fall.
Ideals have an incredible virtue. Even if they aren’t translated into reality, our belief in them gives them life. This belief often gets stronger as our realities worsen. What is the power of reality compared to the power of dreams? What is humanity but a dream-fueled dark story.
Politicians perfectly understood this and politics is much more about ideals as it is about reality: Big and empty words, eloquent and fuzzy concepts, beautiful and inaccessible images have become the essence of politics.
Fear is the needed affect that will bring life to these ideals. Fear is the yang to the yin of ideals.
Meanwhile the factual, the real, will be marginalized, thrown into a hyper-technical and incomprehensible swamp that only a few experts are capable of comprehending. After all, who can understand the complex web of forces behind the labor market? Who can understand the pros and cons of the European Union? Who can understand the incredible challenges of terrorism?
From this swamp, a few words will be picked and added to the repertoire of ideals and mystified fears, allowing reality to be diluted back into fiction. Our politicians will be the heroes of the “fight against insecurity and terrorism,” of the “fight against unemployment,” of the “fight for purchasing power.” Warfare vocabulary is important to enforce the fiction of being “all together” against these invisible and powerful enemies. Invisible enemies are much scarier.
I used to believe in these heroic tales, to follow them with passion. These fights have been going on since I was born.
But one day, reality hits.
Reality strikes back:
Despite the ever-surprising creativity in drafting yet more security laws that diminish freedom in order to “better defend it,” despite heavier police presence in city centers, lack of security and terrorism haven’t gone away from France.
Despite the heroic feats of our governments, purchasing power hasn’t skyrocketed. In a city like Paris, where inflation is much higher than in the rest of the country, purchasing power has not increased for decades. Buying a decent flat not too far from the city center is inaccessible to most younger generations.
Despite massive omissions from official figures over the years and reductions in state support for the most fragile, unemployment isn’t going away, and young people are particularly affected, with 24.6 percent of them unemployed.
Public health and education systems are being slowly dismantled. The public pension system is in jeopardy. The poverty rate is growing. One in seven people living in France are poor, according to certain statistics. And after decades of decreasing and then stagnating, inequalities have been growing again since the early 2000s.
Despite all the tales about human rights, France has always belittled its colonial past and neo-colonial present. It supports bloody dictatorships and wars without blinking. It routinely commits human rights violations on its own soil against fragile populations.
So much for a “special country.”
Let me be clear. France still has its shiny side, which attracts many people. But it also has its hidden, darker side. Worse, these two sides are gradually splitting and becoming more and more opposed.
Meanwhile, our political game seemed set to be an eternal ballet between the two dominant political parties — the center-left Socialist Party (PS – Socialist Party) and right-wing Les Républicains (LR – The Republicans). Enormous corruption cases wouldn’t change anything. Like an instrument only able to play two notes that eventually become unbearable, the political game seemed locked and unable to deliver any change.
The slow decay of the French political system naturally led to growing alienation and powerlessness. Unsurprisingly, the electoral abstention rate surged over the last few decades, starting with minor elections and reaching more major ones.
I wasn’t the only one hit by this reality. I was one of many to lose all belief in politics. Some reacted by extreme voting, others retracted. Reality was retaliating.
But this is me, being middle-class and from the city center. Many of the marginalized and ghettoized in the suburbs never had the luxury of this belief. This fiction or this reality had never been for them but rather against them. Secluded in their own real and imaginary worlds, they would just wait for this foreign world to end.
Despite all the non-believers, despite the now overwhelming reality, the politics-fiction tale would go on.
Yet, like out-of-fashion theater actors completely ignoring their irrelevance, our good old political fighters kept running their obsolete play. They would smile. They would be angry. They would warn against danger. They would promise better days. They would have a strong conviction and then change their minds for other strong convictions.
Life has this strange peculiarity in which unexpected things seem to happen at just the right time, as we have almost completely lost hope, and often enough so that hope still exists in our lives.
An example of this phenomenon happened in France last month.
Right when we had lost all belief, right when we were only expecting the next terrible thing and had somehow figured out how to deal with it, the two-note instrument stopped playing.
The gray sky opened.
And something happened.
Something surprising, something new, something good?
I’m unsure. But what is sure is that this is a nice story.
The new, improved tale is a continuation of the old one. But like with big productions, putting passé actors back into fashion by giving them secondary roles, our old politicians will finally get the place they belong.
But we know them, they’ll fight before gracefully settling for secondary roles, which makes the unfolding of this perfect scenario even more savory.
Chapter 1: The heroic self-sacrifice of the old warlord
François Hollande was an unlikely hero. He was like the boy at the top of the class at school that you know is smart, but that you somehow can’t really like or see succeed. His chubbiness and lack of charisma earned him the cruel nickname of “Flanby” from his peers, the name of a famous industrial flan.
Nobody ever thought he could ever be elected. But before the 2012 election, Hollande changed. He got thinner, sharper, more confident. Most importantly he happened to be there at the right moment when France, exhausted by 10 years of his predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy’s hyperactivity, was looking for the opposite.
The honeymoon didn’t last. Hollande’s presidency was historical in its anti-climatic way. Its main legacy will consist of setting the absolute unpopularity record for any president with four percent of satisfied voters in the fall of 2016.
A clear sign the matrix was severely affected by the outside.
But our President stayed strong.
Defying the ethos of the left like never seen before, Hollande, despite his unpopularity, didn’t move from his very right-wing economic policies. He routinely resorted to police violence and toyed with extreme-right ideas with little apology.
Politicians themselves have reality checks. In what we call “democracies” they are framed as elections. After a five-year reign, our old warrior felt the end was near. He tried to fight his fate, they always do, but finally stepped down.
Having between zero and minus 10 percent chance of being re-elected and put under pressure from his party, Hollande, after months of intense reflection, became the first alive president of the fifth Republic not to run for a second term. Let’s note his approval rating went back to 20 percent after this heroic decision. French people know how to show their appreciation.
Hollande is out. Like our former president and great drama master Giscard d’Estaing would say:
His sublime and dramatic exit nevertheless left his party completely bare, torn between a left wing that still believed it theoretically has something to do with the left and those who clearly have problems with anything close to leftist policies, while still being OK with being called “socialists.”
The 2017 presidential election was looming and the PS looked pretty much out of the race at this point. The chessboard had suddenly opened up on the left. The competition was smelling blood.
Let’s see what’s happening in the mud.
Chapter 2: A cub as leader of the pack
After Hollande withdrew from the race, the party organized its primary to nominate its candidate. Due to the unpopularity of Hollande’s presidency, the primary garnered less attention and voters than the LR. It was a rare sign reality and politics are sometimes connected.
The underlying aim of the primary was to settle the fight between the party’s left and right-wing contingents. Another underdog ended up winning. Benoît Hamon, who, representing the left wing, defeated the unpopular Prime Minister Manuel Valls by a wide margin.
Hamon can be compared to the nice guy who has the wrong friends, and seems to actually believe he can change things, including his own party. With the party sapped by internal fights and in a deep identity crisis, his relative freshness propelled him to leader of the pack, yet he obviously did not have what it takes for an impossible mission. Weak pack leaders rarely age well, and this was no exception.
Chapter 3: The old LR guard fights over the prey
The incumbent PS out, the election looked to be a landslide for whoever would win the LR primary election. The PS-LR ballet was ready for its 1,384th act.
The internal primary electoral system, adopted by both main parties, opened the game up a little in a surprising display of democracy. Previously restricted to party members, the primary was open to LR sympathizers for the first time, with the hope that a wider voting base would give the winner greater legitimacy. This was a risk that was deemed worthwhile.
At the time, the LR primary strongly looked to be the real presidential election. Smelling a historical opportunity for an easy victory in the main election, the heavy-weight figures of the party entered the race, chiefly Sarkozy (back from his staged retirement) and former Prime Ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillon. A bunch of younger wolves — the weak of the pack making their way to the crumbs — completed the picture, with no serious hope of winning, but with the aim of eventually negotiating a nice ministerial position with the winner.
Despite his carefully planned absence, Sarkozy never managed to reconnect with an electorate who got tired of his 10-year omnipresence between 2002 and 2012. The Jacques Chirac-affiliated and more consensual Juppé was heavily favored by the polls throughout the campaign. But in a charged context after multiple terrorist attacks over the last two years, the campaign drifted to the right and the more austere Fillon made a very late surge and won against all odds.
His platform was close to Sarkozy’s, while edging him on his right: strong budgetary discipline and budget spending cuts, strong emphasis on security and most importantly a very hard stance against the wide French Muslim community, which he singled out as “the problematic community” he wanted to “administratively control.“
The ruthless violence and fear machine was working at full speed.
Chapter 4: Le Pen cashes in
Further to the right, but not by much, extreme-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen (commonly called Marine) could only appreciate that the campaign was now oriented towards her turf. Since taking over from her dad in 2011, Le Pen had adopted a more nuanced and less provocative approach, while staying true to her anti-Islamist, anti-immigration and anti-system-but-not-totally rhetoric. Meanwhile, the drift to the right of the whole French political spectrum and debate naturally brought her more center stage and reinforced her legitimacy.
Built around and for two dominating parties, the French presidential election is a two-round election. The two first candidates in the first round compete in the second. The winner is the president.
Surfing on the historical score of the 2015 European elections, which the FN won for the first time in history, Le Pen was a given for the second round of the main election. But due to her still wide unpopular party, she was not given a chance to win the second round. A majority of French people still reject the extreme-right; this is where gray differs from black.
What it essentially means is that any candidate making the second round with Le Pen would quasi-automatically win the election, making the second round irrelevant. In reality Le Pen didn’t really matter either, as she would be the second round runner-up whatever happened. But in this tale, Le Pen matters a lot.
Le Pen is the villain.
Chapter 5: The hero emerges from the gloom
With the PS as unpopular and fragmented as ever, and the LR cruising to extreme-right territory, a boulevard opened at the center.
And something happened.
Like spring out of winter, Emmanuel Macron came out of nowhere to seize it.
The story has found his true hero. He is young, he is new, he is handsome. He has sweet eyes, he smiles. He smiles a lot. Most importantly, he is fast. Two years as deputy secretary general to Hollande after his 2012 election, two years as economy minister, and here he is at age 38, founding his own party En Marche (EM), launching “the great walk” to meet and consult the electorate and running in the national election.
He is everything Hollande isn’t and never was. Macron next to Hollande is the lightning atomizing the flanby.
We don’t know so much about him or his program, but does it matter? He looks and he feels nice and new. And feeling often matters more than deeds. A fresh and beautiful mystery is more appealing than most certainties.
Heroes don’t need to be introduced, or to introduce themselves. They are heroes from their first second on the screen. People feel it. Macron rapidly gained solid momentum for someone from outside the three main parties.
First his rivals neglected him. As an outsider with no pre-existing structure or support base, no one considered him at first to be a serious contender for the final victory. He would be a nice side story at most, like many of his predecessors who tried to rapidly reach the summit via the center.
Victory is sweeter when it comes for an underdog. And in order to succeed, the hero needs a bit of oversight and luck. To be defeated, the villains first need to be weakened by fighting against each other. And you can trust our warriors for that.
Chapter 6: The villains defeat themselves but fight till the end
A clear superiority French politics has over football is that it allows players to fight within their own camp and even to fight against themselves.
On the left: Small murders between friends
If the PS primary in itself wasn’t so eventful, the aftermath of Hamon’s victory was when the fight really began. In order to run, all candidates to the primary had to officially commit to support the winner. But promises don’t age well in French politics.
Having heavily contributed to the endless drift of the PS to the right, and seeing after his defeat that Hamon had little chance to win it all, Valls and many of his socialist right-wing colleagues left him to endorse Macron, who was better placed in the race and much closer to them ideologically.
So long for the nice guy, who ended up abandoned and inaudible in this deserted forest that has become the PS. We never really heard from him again. Reports say he still got six percent of the votes in the first round of the election, the worst score in the history of the party. Even scarier, the PS might somehow survive this internal slaughter. Our warriors know when to stop the bloodshed and regroup.
On the right: An agonizing mud bath
With the PS in complete disarray, and after his large victory in his party’s primary, Fillon was the overwhelming favorite to win the main election at the turn of 2017. He really is not that exciting, but he benefited from the strongest support base and an atmosphere of insecurity. Like a football team looking to preserve the score, he just needed to play it safe, solidify his head of state stature and play it a tad more consensual to retain the center-right voters who could be tempted by Macron.
This is when the shit hit the fan.
In January, the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that Fillon used public funds to give fictitious jobs to his wife, a major stain on someone presenting himself as a virtuous catholic, a clean and ego-less countryman, in stark contrast to Parisian jet-setter Sarkozy.
French conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon and his wife were questioned for five hours by police investigators on Monday (January 30) as part of a probe into allegations that Penelope Fillon had been paid for fake jobs. Julian…
The masks fell, another villain was discovered. He took a bullet, he got hurt. Time slowed down. He saw the finish line close, he was still ahead. The dream of his life was still up for grabs. While he could have played collectively and let his runner-up Juppé take his place and easily win the race, he played it solo. He bit the bullet and went all-in for the victory. Of course he did.
That’s how the villain pathetically destroyed himself. After the revelation, Fillon went on TV to deny the allegations, saying the job was real and that his wife did work for him. He also revealed that he had employed his two sons in their capacity as lawyers and promised to withdraw from the election if he was officially charged. None of this proved to be true. Further overwhelming revelations strongly indicated that Fillon’s wife wasn’t working for him, including an explicit statement she made in a 2007 video interview to English media. His sons were hired as lawyers without proper qualifications. He was convicted, but still remained in the race.
An ugly end. He struggled, he apologized, he played the victim, he accused the media and the judicial system, and the Muslims, of course. He fought till the end. And he lost the election. Fillon arrived third, just 1.29 percent behind Le Pen, like the villain dying while he was just about to escape with the loot.
Chapter 7: The hero ends up defeating the last super-villains, democracy is saved
With the self-destruction of the main traditional party candidates, Macron appeared as the favorite in the last few months leading to the election, benefiting from disgruntled right-wing voters from Fillon’s party and disoriented ones from the PS.
But any relapse could prove fatal, as his base remained fragile. So he gathered support from all sides, smiled more than ever, and presented himself as “neither right nor left,” as a system outsider wanting to renovate the political system.
But the hero needs to suffer a bit in order to make his victory more victorious. Even if we know from the start they won’t win, villains still loom.
After getting 11 percent in the 2012 election, polls this time placed Mélenchon at around 18 to 20 percent, and he joined Fillon, Le Pen and Macron in the list of potential second round finalists.
The media rightly panicked because the extreme-left villain was a super-villain. Mélenchon isn’t such a bad guy, he even belonged to the PS before, but he seemed to strongly desire very bad things that — to make it worse — looked good, such as leaving Europe. So that everyone understands, the intent of leaving Europe is something only reserved for villains, because Europe is obviously a good thing. But I’ll let someone who knows better talk about this.
Le Pen is the conflicted villain. She has a bad side, but still wishes to be loved by most French white people and doesn’t understand why she isn’t. She is more of an insider. She comes from a wealthy background and has always shown openness to talk to the “good people who make our economy work.”
Mélenchon is the ruthless villain who wanted to persuade everyone to join him on the red side. And that’s the thing: He allied himself with the communists, a disappearing but still very dangerous species who used to cut throats and drink children’s blood a few decades back when they were many.
Le Pen’s role was to scare people while providing no real alternative, thereby justifying the system. Mélenchon provided an alternative, which is why he was sidelined and silenced as much as possible.
Despite these gigantic threats, our smiling hero bravely made it to the promised land. He arrived first in the first round, with 24 percent of the votes, and easily won the second with 66 percent against Le Pen’s 34 percent. Le Pen had twice as many votes as her father in 2002, and abstention and blank votes were at a historical high (16 million total against 20 million votes for Macron).
This tweet shows the re-partition of the second round votes (in the millions) from the last four elections and the percentage of blank votes and abstentions.
— Agence France-Presse (@afpfr) May 8, 2017
But who cares? The villains were defeated. Democracy was saved from the semi-nice fascists and the bloody communists for five more years. Things finally seem in the right place: A fresh and new hero kicked out the old warriors, who now must submit or be ignored for five years. As seen earlier, Hollande disappeared. Fillon and Hamon will likely take the same path.
France can celebrate, breathe and flex its muscles. City-center blond kids can shyly fly the French flags given to them by their parents. Facebook can explode in joy. My middle-class friends throughout the whole world congratulate me. Rightly so: We can be proud of such a beautiful democratic spectacle, one finally worth putting in the textbooks. France feels great again.
Post-victory word gastronomy
Weeks have passed. I have to admit I have been quite shaken and confused after this unexpected swirl of events, smiles and positive feelings. A question keeps spinning in my head:
Is he really special?
I even sometimes surprise myself by expecting actual change from him. In a moment of inner turmoil over this unexpected hope I read his proposed program. Amid the jungle of nice big words and great intentions, I struggle to find concrete action items. Here is what I found in this treasure hunt:
– Children will know how to read and write, this is his main (ambitious) educational priority.
– Schools should teach pupils how to work.
– The poor will receive glasses, and since they’ll know how to read it will be even more useful.
– Some of them (the good ones) will be trained for work, so that they can work. There will be more work for everyone, as he will “free up the energies” within the French economy.
– Poor people who work will be given 50 euro extra per month. The others will probably not get it, but it will encourage them even more to find work.
– Working will be nicer and nicer, and not working worse and worse.
– Homeless people will have a free “solidarity cloud” for their bank accounts and emails. Now they just need a home with internet and all will be perfect.
– Fiscal evasion will be punished.
– Muslims will be free, but the state will “neutrally” survey them and help them with their religion. They must also agree with French “freedoms.”
– We will fight terrorism.
– There will be fewer public servants but more police.
– We will do much more with less, so that we don’t use the money of our children.
– French politicians will now have morals.
– Parliament will not be used much because it’s slow (and Macron is faster).
– Europe will be better and even more democratic. It will even have a finance minister and citizens will be able to form committees and suggest stuff.
– Overall, things should get better.
This reading severely affected the hope in me. Let’s keep in mind that Macron presented his candidacy as a “revolution.”
In order to self-preserve more efficiently, I suggest extracting electoral programs from political-fiction. An ideal is at threat when it is unpacked; it can lose its poetic essence, and its majesty, from which it derives its entire value. Like Hollywood stars or top models, politicians and their ideals should remain distant in order to retain their appeal. Engaging a discussion with a top model can be a traumatizing act.
And this is precisely the issue: acts. At some point in the tale, after the victory, real acts need to happen. And the problem lies in having these acts somehow in line with the ideals that led to victory. Worse, people are watching, dissecting your every move. They believe you represent them!
This is where the laws of physics get ruthless.
Macron’s case is even thornier. We’re entering quantum territory. Let’s sum up:
This is a recipe for disaster.
Marketing can do fantastic things, but not put a square object in a round hole, or move someone’s furniture around and make him believe you fully refurnished his flat.
Macron as an abstract concept is fantastic. Even if he is a pure product of the French political and economic elite, his fast rise to power is fascinating. He can probably be compared to a mixture of Tony Blair and Justin Trudeau, a fresh face who destroys the last remains of the right-left divide and facelifts the political elite without touching a hair of its core dynamics. He is the most perfect short-term umbrella for an agonizing political system.
But a botoxing doesn’t much help a patient needing heart surgery. It is a sad symbol of a system that isn’t programmed to comprehend the diseases it creates, and makes things worse by pretending to cure them.
Time will pass. Soon enough, reality will hit. The endless praise for each smile or empty word will fade out. The new tale will look old. The smiling plastic surgeon will go out of fashion. One day he will disappear and make room for a fresher face. Meanwhile, France will keep falling. Its divisions will get wider. Le Pen will get stronger. Hope will get thinner.
And from the absurdity of the real the appeal of dreams will surge. The desire for this illusory togetherness and sense of history that makes nations and societies somehow stick together will resurface. A clever dream seller will seize the opportunity, a new tale will begin.
And one day, like we sometimes come across a picture of an ex, we might see this and savor the words with a half-nostalgic, half-bitter grin.
Addressing thousands of supporters in front of Paris’ Louvre museum, French President-elect Emmanuel Macron said he would do all he can in the next five years so that ‘no one ever has a reason again to vote for extremes.” Rough Cut (no…
Meanwhile I will continue my vain escape from grayness.