Once Upon A Time In France: Viva Tech, Election Abstention, And Get BAC

Dreaming Of Carcassone

Paris’ giant conference center, the Porte de Versailles, is located in the Southern part of the city in a neighborhood that isn’t likely to make anyone’s top list of places to see. It’s not terrible. But with its relatively modern buildings dominated by a byzantine series of structures intended to host giant business conferences, it’s most likely that visitors who stumble through this corner of Paris are obligated to be there for logistical reasons rather than by choice.

Like me. I spent 4 days there last week attending the Viva Tech conference, one of the first big tech conferences to hold a live event since the pandemic hit last. The tech conference typically draws about 60,000 people, but attendance was limited this year to 5,000 people on site with all sessions being live-streamed. Still, being in a hall with 5,000 people at the same time was the largest crowd I’d seen since March 2020. I was moderating a series of panels which meant I had to wake up and shower and shave and get dressed for 4 days in a row for the first time in forever. By the end of the week, my face had been thoroughly traumatized by all the scraping and scrubbing and the people in charge of makeup for the event had to work extra hard each time I had to prepare for a session. On Friday, the last day, the woman at the makeup chair actually paused, and shook her head, and gave me an “oh la la” before beginning her intensive reconstructive efforts to make me look presentable for the panels.

My arrival in Paris came as the country continues its march toward returning to some semblance of normalcy, whatever that may turn out to be. Last week, the government dropped the requirement for wearing masks outside. It felt extraordinarily liberating to be walking with a naked face again, especially with temperatures rising for much of the week.

Though I’m not a full-time Paris resident, one could feel the buzzing returning to the streets. On Tuesday night, I joined some friends for a late-night drink near the Seine. France was playing Germany in the Euro Cup. I could hear the city erupt as France won the match, but that euphoria was quickly dampened by the restaurant owner who began running around 5 minutes before 11 pm, frantically tapping his watch and demanding that all guests leave before the curfew as the wait staff began clearing tables.

I made the unfortunate choice of calling an Uber. Between the curfew and the post-match curfew-busting celebrations, the streets were packed with cars. The 15-minute ride back to my hotel stretched to 90 minutes and I fell asleep in the back seat.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the conference, at least for those who are not immersed in the startup world, was the annual visit of President Emmanuel Macron. If one is to believe Twitter and French TV news, he’s a deeply unpopular president who is being criticized for any number of things. (Though polls still show him a favorite to be re-elected next year). But Macron has been a consistent supporter of startups and entrepreneurs and startups. As such, when he visits Viva Tech, he is treated like a rock star. This year was no different. Even if the crowds were smaller, the adoration remains fervent. If he wins re-election next year, it will be at least in part due to the unwavering loyalty of his tech fanbase.


Election Abstention

As I noted in the previous newsletter, this past Sunday was the first round of voting in France’s regional elections. The 18 regions wield big budgets for things like schools and local transportation. But for many, the vote was seen as a bellwether for the presidential election next year.

In that respect, the omens were not good. Numerous polls showed Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party poised to be leading in several regions after the first round, with a decent chance of winning their first regional government. This seemed in sync with early national polls indicating that Le Pen is nipping at the heels of President Emmanuel Macron in the 2022 election. The RN surge in polls even prompted one government minister to call “satanic” the idea of the party running one of France’s regions.

Turns out, the polls sucked. Le Pen’s party massively underperformed in the first round.

Polls in our region, Occitanie, suggested there was a good chance the RN candidate, DeJean-Paul Garraud, would be leading after the first round with 32% of the vote compared to 29% for incumbent president Carole Delga. Instead, Delga received 39.57% of the vote in round one compared to 22.61% for Garraud.

The only place an RN candidate placed first was the southeast region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. And even there, the assumption is that the other parties will rally together this weekend to ensure the RN does not win. As such, the vote was seen as a major blow to Le Pen. Her grassroots support seemed to be massively overstated.

By the same measure, Macron’s La Republique En Marche party once again failed to make much of a showing. Though Macron won in 2017 by creating a strong ground game to support his new center-right party, LREM has not been able to establish similar strength at the local or regional levels.

But the real statistic that seemed to leave everyone in shock was the pathetic overall turnout. Almost two out of every three voters stayed home. It’s a record low turnout for a French election. There was some thinking that perhaps Covid restrictions had kept many voters home, though most of those have been lifted at this point. And there was also a theory that perhaps voters don’t fully comprehend the roles of regional governments.

Overall, the high abstention prompted much handwringing about the state of democracy in a nation where students have their rights and obligations as citizens drilled into their heads throughout their school years.

“The level of abstention is particularly worrisome,” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin tweeted. “Our collective work must turn towards mobilizing the French for the second round.”



Speaking of the French educational system, one of the great rights of passage is the baccalaureate or BAC that high school seniors (known here grimly as terminale) take at the end of the year. The BAC is one of these things that have been around forever and is in theory meant to ensure a common standard of education.

Its real purpose is a but…fuzzier. While the French BAC is taken at the end of junior year, the rest is taken near the end of the senior year. Virtually every student “gets” their BAC. And the results come after the university selection process. So one might ask: What’s the point? A question to which I would not have a good answer.

As fate would have it, the Macron government decided to “reform” the BAC. Our son was part of the first class under this New BAC. Naturally, the reforms triggered obligatory protests by teachers, parents, and students. But for all the hue and cry, many of the new BAC tests were scrapped as a result of COVID.

In the end, only 2 BAC tests were maintained. One was last week when every high school senior sat for a 4-hour BAC philosophy exam. They had to write a long essay on one of the following questions that they were not given ahead of time:

1) To discuss is to renounce violence?

2) Does the unconscious escape all forms of knowledge?

3) Are we responsible for the future?

4) Explain Durkheim's Division of Labor in Society.

The education minister tweeted the questions after the exam and these were all widely covered on TV and debated on Twitter. One reporter even went “back” to school for the day to take the test just to see if she could still hack it.

This week marked the start of the Grand Oral. This is a new feature of the reformed BAC, and so the first time it has been held. Students spend the year developing 2 presentations of 5 minutes related to subjects they have chosen to study this year. A jury of 2 teachers will then choose 1 of those 2 subjects and the student must give their oral presentation, followed by 10 minutes of Q&A and then some questions about their academic and professional future. These presentations are spread out over two weeks.

The real stakes at this point? Whether some students get an extra notation on their BAC: mention très bien. But in reality? It’s not likely to make much difference in anyone’s life.

The climax to this educational ritual comes on July 6 when the BAC results are posted outside school walls where the entire world can see them. This allows the students who passed to be celebrated, and the handful who failed to be publicly shamed and humiliated. Which perhaps, in the end, is the real point of the BAC.


Dreaming Of France

The city of Carcassonne, one of the most beautiful fortresses in Europe and certainly one of the best-preserved, is surrounded by majestic walls that are punctuated with defensive towers.

A flagship of the Medieval period, it attracts millions of visitors each year, all captivated by the unique atmosphere that emanates from these old stones. Among its illustrious visitors were Walt Disney, Grace Kelly (the future Princess of Monaco), and Winston Churchill.

Did you know: During a stay in Carcassonne in the 1930s, Winston Churchill notably painted pictures of the city walls.

Did you know: Walt Disney was so captivated by the city that it inspired the design of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

The site has also inspired Hollywood director Kevin Reynolds who shot scenes on location there for the 1990 film “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” starring Kevin Costner.

This major site is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

What to do:

A dramatized tour in English with a costumed guide.

Where to stay:

The Hôtel de la Cité mythical 5-star hotel where many stars of yesterday and today have stayed.

Where to eat:

La Barbacane: Michelin-starred restaurant at the Hôtel de la Cité.

Carcassonne is one of the Grands Sites de la Destination Occitanie Sud de France. For more information, on preparing a trip, visit the websites for Occitanie Tourism or Carcassonne.


Great Reads

The New York Times published a photo essay on the clay used at Roland Garros. Another photo series in The Washington Post features French women who wear the hijab. France-Amérique discusses how French TV is having its moment in the international spotlight. The Washington Post visits the village of Le Beausset where cicadas are beloved and celebrated.

Chris O’Brien

Toulouse, France