Once Upon A Time In France: Satanic Elections, Slapping Macron, And Liberty Sails

Dreaming Of Pays de La Loire

As an American living in France, life feels like an endless election cycle. The U.S. had its presidential election in November, but of course, the Big Lie meant that the drama played out for months. Even the storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters didn’t end things because then there was the impeachment and more phony recounts and on and on and on. And now talk is already mounting about the 2022 mid-terms.

France doesn’t have mid-term elections (although it should!). But it does have elections for its 18 regional governments starting Sunday, June 20. Think of the regional governments as large states within France that wield sizable budgets and policymaking power over things like high schools and regional transportations. As Toulouse residents, we live in the Occitanie region, which geographically is roughly the size of Scotland.

The regional governments have a big impact on people’s daily lives. But many of the issues are being overshadowed by the horserace aspect. Pundits are looking for signs about what the results will mean for the 2022 presidential election next Spring. The growing concern is that the far-right Rassemblement National party, led by Marine Le Pen, is showing signs of being competitive in some of the regions. The RN, and its predecessor the Front National, have never won an election at the regional level.

The calculations of such elections and divining their bigger meaning is tough. While President Emmanuel Macron invented a new center-right party in 2017 (La République En Marche!) that propelled his insurgent victory, LREM has not succeeded in making inroads into local and regional elections. It was a non-factor in last year’s municipal elections, and it’s not polling well in places where it’s managed to field candidates this time around.

As such, there is much nailbiting happening. To wit, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin seemed to blow a gasket when, during a campaign stop for an LREM candidate in Dijon, he said there was a strong desire to ensure that the RN doesn’t win a region. Adding: “We can clearly see the satanic mark that a victory for the RN would represent.”

Le Pen responded on France’s favorite right-wing news network, CNEWS, by telling LREM to chill. Unfortunately, such exchanges have the effect of making Le Pen look like the reasonable one.

Darmanin was trying his best to boost the chances of the LREM candidate in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region. The RN candidate is leading the first round of voting with 28%, according to a recent poll, while the LREM candidate is in 4th place with 16%. This raises two issues.

First, the name Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. Who thought this was a good idea? It’s a reminder of the misguided naming process born out of a decision to fuse many of France’s regional governments back in 2016. The idea was to make bigger governing bodies and territories in an attempt to make the country less Paris-centric. Didn’t work. But it did shrink the number of regional governments from 22 to 15. Alas, several of these new governments opted to split the political baby and simply smoosh the names of the old regions together. So Bourgogne and France-Comté became…Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. Auvergne and Rhône-Alpes became Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. Fortunately, most regions were more sensible and creative. Our region merged Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées to become…Occitanie. A better choice, though admittedly the Catalan community in the Pyrénées is none-too-thrilled about it.

The second problem will come next week after the first round of voting. Explaining how regional voting actually works is more complicated than explaining quantum computing. There is the first round on June 20, followed by a second round on June 27. After the first round, any party will less than 10% of the vote is eliminated. But in the case of Occitanie, polls show as many as five parties could get enough votes to remain in the second round.

Some of the seats in the regional assembly are awarded by proportional votes, and a chunk is then awarded to the overall winner after the second round. So in between the 2 rounds, there will be some furious horse-trading and attempts to forge alliances. Currently, the RN candidate is leading the first round, according to a recent local poll. The incumbent Socialist Party candidate is in a close second, but likely to come out ahead after the 2nd round assuming the expected rival parties line up behind her.

But until that 2nd round of voting happens, expect some serious anxiety over the next 2 weeks.


Slapping Macron

There is an adage in U.S. justice reform circles that says: Justice delayed is justice denied. I’m not sure what the opposite of that would be, but I’m pretty sure we just saw it in France last week.

The drama began on June 8 when Macron was visiting Tain-l’Hermitage in the Drôme region of France as part of his Tour de France to listen to citizens but also attempt to convince them that he’s done enough to deserve a second term. While shaking hands along the line of residents, some dude reached across and gave Macron a slap on the face. A video of the smack went viral:

And so I learned the French word for slap: gifler. Also, tarte (pie) is slang for “slap.” Leading one group to label the incident la tarte a Tain (tarte a tatin being a kind of apple pie). Souffleter is also acceptable slang for slap as is la claque and donner les baffes.

Anyhow, the perpetrator was one Damien Tarel, described by The Local as “a 28-year-old medieval history enthusiast.” Within 3 days, Tarel had been taken before a judge and sentenced to 18 months, with 4 months in the pokey and 14 months suspended. Justice, in this case, was swift.

But the political waters continued to roil. Just a couple of days after Macron’s encounter, far-left perennial presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon had flour (farine) dumped on him during a campaign appearance by a protestor.

That was followed by a similar powdering received by François de Rugy, a candidate running to be president of the Pays de la Loire Région. I’m pretty sure this prompted de Rugy to invent the word “enfarineuse” to describe the woman who attacked him.

If someone throws some eggs at a candidate (as happened to Macron several years ago), perhaps the candidates could just settle things with a bakeoff.


Liberty Sails

On a friendlier and less confrontationat note, France is giving the U.S. another Statue of Liberty.

According to The New York Times:

The statue, which weighs nearly 1,000 pounds, had been on display at the museum, Musée des Arts et Métiers, for 10 years and will be placed in a specially designed plexiglass box for its nine-day voyage across the Atlantic.

The smaller statue, based on the original 1878 plaster model by the sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, was installed just outside the museum’s entrance in 2011. This statue was cast using a 3-D scan of another model in Paris, the news release said. It will be exhibited on Ellis Island from July 1-5, facing its much bigger sibling on Liberty Island. Then, it will be moved to the French ambassador’s residence in Washington, where it will be on display from July 14, France’s Bastille Day, until 2031.

There are apparently 100 replicas of the original Statue of Liberty, meant to be a sign of friendship between France and the U.S. After a strained few years, it’s nice to see those bonds renewed.


Dreaming Of France

Pays de La Loire region (Atlantic Loire Valley in English) in western France is home to dynamic cities like Nantes and Angers.  Summer in particular is a great time to visit Nantes and participate in the Voyage a Nantes.  All year long, visitors can follow the painted green line that runs through town and connects the city’s top cultural sites, monuments, and must-see sites.  Each summer, this trail is brought to life through the Voyage à Nantes. Artists, designers, gardeners, chefs, DJs, and graffiti artists are invited to express their creativity in public spaces through ephemeral art installations, pop-up restaurants (some featuring local produce grown in the downtown vegetable garden).  This year’s event runs from July 3rd to September 12th and includes 60 different stops.

If you’re more interested in getting off-the-beaten-path, there are several fascinating places to discover. The Lake of Grand-Lieu is the second-largest French ornithological reserve after the Camargue and is home to 270 species of birds. Interested in the coast? Be sure to visit the island of Noirmoutier. Cross the Passage du Gois at low tide and visit the salt marshes which occupy one-third of the island. Want to visit a castle? While the Loire Valley may have more famous chateaux, those in the Pays de La Loire will be less crowded. Check out the Castle of Bazouges sur Loir or the Castle of Courtanvaux dating back from medieval times.


Great Reads

France Today explores the complex world of perfume-making. The New York Times dives into the controversial statements by a local teacher that the city of Trappes was being overrun by Islamists. The Guardian notes that France is leading Europe in terms of attracting foreign investments. And finally, Politico explains that France is hoping to use its turn as the presidency of the European Union to boost the French language:

During the country’s presidency, French diplomats said all key meetings of the Council of the EU will be conducted in French (with translations available). Notes and minutes will be French-first. Even preparatory meetings will be conducted in French. 

If a letter arrives from the European Commission in English, it will go unanswered — Le français est nécessaire.

I am rooting for you, French language.

Chris O’Brien

Toulouse, France