Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Le pont de la Défense

"La Défense! Le pont de La Défense!"  Le Petit was practically jumping up and down in excitement.

La Défense, the business district outside of Paris certainly doesn't make me dream. My husband has spent enough time working there to almost detest it.  Yet whenever we drive by Le Petit looks up at the skyscrapers, entranced.  He insists, even, that we take a certain route home from our weekend outings to the Parc de Saint Cloud so we pass at the feet of the giant towers.

It isn't far from our apartment as the crow flies or even, as I learned on Wednesday, as an almost-five-year-old pedals -- unsteadily -- on his two-wheeled bicycle.  Late in the afternoon, we left Mademoiselle with her doting grandparents and headed out on what I thought would be a short ride around an the island in the Seine near our house, but Le Petit fixed the buildings downstream and announced we were on our way to the "Pont de la Défense."  "Le pont des tours de la Défense," to use his name precisely: the La Défense towers' bridge, found on the map as the less romantic Pont de Neuilly.  I ran alongside him on the wide sidewalk, ready to help him stop at intersections or swerve around pedestrians, and decided to humor him.  Why not?  We'd go a little closer, get a better view, maybe see La Grande Arche and then go home.

Le Petit is fascinated by geography, both of the world and of Paris, his city.  He recognizes Paris landmarks with remarkable accuracy, not just the Eiffel Tower, but the Tour Saint-Jacques and the Hôtel de Ville, the Panthéon and the Palais de Chaillot.   He loves studying maps, and can find and name the five continents and all the major French cities even though he can't yet read.  He's beginning to exhibit his father's second sense for orientation; when we're out in the car, he knows exactly where we are and in which direction we're headed and whether or not we're taking the optimal route.  When he was littler, and less reasonable though no less stubborn, he threw a temper tantrum until my husband drove him through Place de la République.

We got to the bridge, where I briefly thought of turning back.  There was traffic, and traffic fumes, and I had no idea how we'd navigate the crowds of business people with Le Petit's bike. But I want to be the mom who does things on a whim, just because they're important to my kid. Improvising isn't easy with a toddler, and now about the best I can do is let Le Petit choose our itinerary when we're out on a bike ride.  Luckily for me, le Petit is at an age where wonder comes relatively effortlessly, so my creativity isn't too taxed just yet.

We pedaled and walked the bike slowly up the Esplanade de la Défense all the way to the Grande Arche, the modern mirror of the Arc de Triomphe.  We stopped for a long to admire a giant, multicolored mosaic basin with dancing fountains.  Le Petit insisted that I take a photo with my phone to send to Daddy.  Then he turned around and discovered that we had a direct view on the Arc de Triomphe. "Oooo, look!"

We took the train back, le Petit keeping close and listening to my instructions in the swirl of commuters.  We must have amused a few, him with his running commentary of the sights out the window, me with his bike over my shoulder.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Democracy in France, Volume II: The Extreme Right

The first round of the French presidential election took place two weeks ago, and Marine Le Pen, the candidate from the extreme right-wing Front National or National Front party, won almost 18% of the vote.  She came in third and was eliminated, but the score and the resulting political fallout have dominated headlines as we wait for the second round vote on May 6th. What to make of a country where almost one in five electors votes for a party that is, at its heart, xenophobic?  What to make of Sarkozy's subsequent veering to the far right in a desperate bid for those electors?  With the global economic crisis as a backdrop, this eerily recalls the 1930s.  The mainstream press is horrified, for there are ghosts here that no one wants to disturb.

The National Front is firmly rooted in the xenophobia and antisemitism that survived the war and the anti-leftist radicalization that followed, but those roots are hidden these days, mostly.  The party has been dédiabolisé, or "undemonized;" ironically made almost respectable for the mainstream electorate by the very mainstream media that fears it.  Marine Le Pen is a more sympathetic figure than her father and she's adept at maintaining her distance from the more incendiary elements of her own party.  She talks about immigration, but she also talks about the price of gas.  More than anything, she sells fear, and a bitter nostalgia for an imagined France that was once secure and prosperous but is now considered weakened and threatened by outside forces.   

Leave the Euro.  Close the borders.  France for the French.  Her message is meant to basely appeal, and to shock.  Her party rarely wins enough votes to govern; they've had most success, ironically enough, at the European Parliament, where a proportional allotment of seats earns them deputies even when they don't win a majority in the election.  Yet they speak to a slice of the French population that feels increasingly disenfranchised and abandoned, confused and threatened by immigration and globalization.  The votes the National Front wins are hotly contested by the mainstream right, who then mimics their discourse; this, in turn, both pulls public policy to the right and lends the FN further credibility and more votes.

Who votes for the FN? The National Front vote is lower- and lower-middle class, suburban yet also increasingly rural.  FN scores higher in the east and southeast of the country than in the center and west. In some areas, such as the economically depressed northeast, the vote seems to be in reaction to real job losses and economic hardship.  In many other places, however, the vote can't be explained by simple economic logic.  How to explain the majority FN vote in a small rural village where little has seemingly changed since the 1970s?

There's more than economics or crime rates at play: the National Front vote is also and increasingly an anti-establishment vote, filling in a certain sense the same role as the Tea Party in the United States.  Mainstream politicians in France, whether they hail from the right or the left, went to the same schools, live in the same rich Parisian neighborhoods, and employ the same language.  As denizens of the same ivory tower, they are regarded with equal skepticism by many French.  Enter Marine Le Pen, populist, with language that is direct and indignant, claiming to speak truths that no one else dares to address.  Press and politicians alike consider her a pariah.  Like her father before her, she parries with troubling and aggressive soundbites addressed to her audience of electors, not to the elite.  A vote for Le Pen became a vote against the other politicians, rotten, tous pourris.  A vote qui dérange, that's meant to stir up trouble; an unacceptable vote and therefore a powerful vote, not necessarily cast with much more than a desire to tear down and turn things back.

Sarkozy, in his last-ditch effort to win the election, doesn't seem to come to the same conclusion. He sees capturing Le Pen's 18% as his only chance to slide by Hollande, and he's not afraid to transparently adopt more and more of her populist, anti-immigration language.  I doubt it will work.  How could an incumbent possibly win the protest vote against the status quo?  Marine Le Pen refuses to endorse him, saying that she personally will cast a blank ballot.  Meanwhile many in the center right are distancing themselves from Sarkozy, while the extreme right is undoubtedly looking on pleased.  It has been theorized that Le Pen is waiting for the implosion so she can build up her party on the ashes of the mainstream right.  I fear in any case that the vicious circle will continue in the short term, with the FN gaining support and thus a certain inevitability and perceived acceptability.  At some point, if they continue to gain power, they will inevitably lose their credibility as outsiders.  Such a change in fortune still appears far off, alas.

I know, you're thinking "For someone who doesn't even read Le Monde, Parisienne is suddenly quite interested in French politics."  I've been making up for lost time in this election, obsessively reading Le Monde and tardily trying to make sense of the French political landscape.  For a clear explanation of some of the origins of the National Front, I highly recommend a "web documentary" put together last year by Le Monde about François Duprat, one of its founders, and the strategist behind the mainstream populism that brought FN out of the shadows.  If your French comprehension is good enough to follow the video (which are alas unsubtitled), it is well worth watching.