Saturday, April 21, 2012

Democracy in France, Volume I

It's presidential election season here. All across France, they're handing out political tracts at open-air markets and train stations. Rickety metal billboards have been dragged out of municipal basements and set up in front of polling places in schools and gymnasiums, and the faces of a motley crew of candidates stare down from brightly-colored campaign posters. In addition to the two mainstream candidates, there are two Trotskyists, two fascists, an ecologist, a disgruntled centrist, a renegade Socialist, and a self-described left-leaning Gaullist with mad scientist tendencies.  Half want to either punish Wall Street or exit the Euro Zone or both. During the months leading up to the first round of the election, France has flirted with their ideas, giving them all at least some press coverage and television air time. If they made it onto the ballot, it was because they'd earned a minimum of signatures from mayors across the country, a wink of approval from the Fifth Republic.

What (mostly) keeps the French from storming the streets with their pitchforks like they did back in 1789 is this chance every few years to ferment rebellion from the ballot box. There's a fringe candidate for everyone: the chain-smoking university students in their anti-Capitalist phase, the working-class pensioners in their RVs, the provincial churchgoing bourgeoisie. The system works and the country remains intact because the fringe is so fragmented, and no one lunatic gets enough votes to undermine international credibility or national stability. There is, however, always the possibility that the electorate will get carried away and unleash dark forces beyond their control, as they did back in 2002 when the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round.

As an American, used to a fixed two-party system, the slow death march of the official party primaries, and the enshrined, incoherent electoral college, all this baffled me at first.

Here in France, the electoral procedure itself is startlingly simple: two rounds of voting, at two weeks interval; the top two candidates chosen in the first round make it to the second. There are no bubbles to fill in, no holes to punch, and no possibility of hanging chads: we vote by putting little slips of paper in envelopes and dropping them into big clear plastic ballot boxes.

A week before the election, a thick brown envelope arrives in the mailbox containing a copy of each  candidate's pamphlet, along with a stack of the little official slips of paper. On the front of each pamphlet there's a photo of the candidate along with their campaign slogan. François Hollande, the Socialist front runner, tells us "Change is now." Sitting president Sarkozy, who is rapidly slipping in the polls and was recently ditched by some of his former ministers, calls for "A Strong France."  Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an independent left-wing candidate, incites us to "Take Power," and Jacques Cheminade promises "A world without the City or Wall Street." Inside, the summaries of the party platforms make for fascinating reading. Except for those of the mainstream candidates, they are written by party faithful and true believers, not political spin doctors. They are unpolished. They are often laugh-out-loud ridiculous.

Cheminade, an anti-establishment candidate who defies classification, has six simple bullet points which promise (among other admirable goals) to "build a Europe of nations to combat financial feudalism," to "provide the resources to populate the world through nuclear physics," and to "take on the challenges of African development and space exploration [sic]." He goes into detail about his plans to restore Lake Chad and to harness thermonuclear fusion.

Nathalie Arthaud, one of the two Troskyist candidates, doesn't bother with bullet points. She uses two pages of dense text to make one point, that "[t]he fundamental injustice of this society is that it is those who produce, who make everything work, who live the hardest, while the rich parasites, who don't do anything useful and, on the contrary, ruin society by speculation, amass larger and larger fortunes." She helpfully highlights the most useful phrases in yellow.

You could point out that this is all just a sideshow, and you'd be mostly correct. These outlier candidates will get single-digit percentages of the vote, if that, and then they'll disappear until they're called back in another five years to play the same bit parts on the political stage. But without them, I suspect the fragile political equilibrium of this country would be in danger. Or at least the cobblestones, favored projectiles of the citizen mob, would be less well-anchored to Parisian streets.

One of the things I most appreciate about the presidential election in France is that there are no political ads on television. They are illegal here -- look, Ma, no First Amendment! -- and their absence leaves the political season mostly vitriol-free, almost light-hearted. Instead, each candidate is allotted an equal amount of screen time to present their message on the major state-owned television networks at the end of prime time. I don't watch much TV, so I unfortunately missed the campagne officielle before Wednesday night. I watched it again tonight, and with luck, I'll catch the very last edition tomorrow.

Philippe Poutou, the other Troskyist and self-proclaimed "worker candidate," stole the show on Wednesday. In his spot, he hangs out the window of a Parisian apartment building to discuss the economic crisis with a neighbor. As more windows open, another neighbor shouts up from the paved courtyard below, What about jobs? Things are tough right now. There's plenty of money, Poutou explains good-naturedly, we just have to take it from (I paraphrase here) the Capitalist pigs who are keeping it for themselves. That's the way to save the system. Someone complains about the noise, so Philippe casually invites his neighbors to his place to talk more over coffee.

Hollande and Mélenchon wove scenes of parades, of schoolchildren, tractors and factory workers, with forcefully-delivered speeches. Hollande flashed images of the Revolution, of Jean Jaurès, Mitterand and even de Gaulle as his words crescendoed with uncharacteristic passion. Hollande usually seems so... boring.  I was surprised. Sarkozy tried the same act, but it fit less well. He should try to remember that juxtaposing crowds of mad, flag-waving supporters with anti-immigration statements is kind of creepy, just a smidge reminiscent of Berlin 1933.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate, needed no flags tonight. She looked straight into the camera and explained how well she understands the plight of us French. The cost of living.  The price of gas. The dang-blasted automatic radar on the highways. The price gouging of endives.  Yes, endives.  On Wednesday she slipped at least one xenophobic message into her remarks, but tonight she talked about salad. Because of those endives, she clearly she has our best interests at heart. Vive la France!  

The first round of the election is on Sunday and once it's over, I'm afraid things will get a lot less interesting. I hope so, at any rate. Ever since the Le Pen fiasco in 2002, the French have been paying lip service to the vote utile: the "useful vote," or a vote for a mainstream candidate in the first round. How many of them are actually willing to dampen their passion and rebellion for the good of the country is hard to say, and I'll have to admit, I find neither Hollande nor Sarkozy easy to get excited about. The pollsters are legally obliged to keep mum from now until after the polls close, and I, personally, have no useful predictions.

Stayed tuned for Volume II.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Le Petit's Big Adventure

Le Petit is in La Rochelle for the school vacation.  For ten days.  Without us, his parents.  I'm not sure he's even thinking about us much, believe it or not, since he's with my in-laws.  Every day, they'll be taking him to the beach and to Ile de Ré and letting him get all covered with sand and ice cream and unconditional love.

I miss him, though the house is calmer and neater with only Mademoiselle here, especially when she takes her long afternoon nap.  There are no scuffles to keep the little sister out of the Lego corner (Mademoiselle has already dismantled everything and I've put the pieces neatly away in bins); no dada-esque preschool narratives at the dinner table.  I keep catching myself wondering where he is for a brief, terrified moment, or expecting him to pop out of the next room, before I remember he's off having fun.  The night before he left I dreamed that we'd let him wander the streets of Olympia, Washington on his own.  He went to the park and the Farmer's Market all by himself, and my nutty, anxious subconscious followed him wondering if this made me a bad parent.  I'm not making this up.  My shoulders and neck hurt for three days before he left.  My mommy-reptilian-brain has it in for me.

At the same time, my rational, conscious self is not at all concerned, because I trust my in-laws with my children more than I trust just about anyone else on earth.  My mother-in-law pushes overprotective anxiety to new limits, seeing potential accidents everywhere -- I worry about her, but not for a minute about Le Petit.  And just as my own grandparents did, le Petit's grandparents have almost endless reserves of patience and creativity to share.  He will eat his favorite foods, be consulted on the destination of every outing, be listened and read to, and basically be the center of the solar system for a week and a half.

I'm reading Anne Lamott's new book Some Assembly Required  right now.  I read Operating Instructions, her memoir of the first year of her son's life, when le Petit was a baby, and re-read it in the first months after Mademoiselle was born.  In that book, she described the joy, chaos, drudgery, terrifying uncertainty, and wonder of having a baby with an accuracy that is both hilarious and poignant.  I'm sure I not the first mother who is grateful to her for finding the words that I couldn't find myself.  In Some Assembly, that baby has grown up (or almost) and now has a baby of his own, and Lamott describes her journey as mother and grandmother.

"The job of a good parent," she writes, "Is to be dispensable.  No one remembered to tell my parents that, but I know it is true.  It's not morally right to make yourself indispensable."

I read that and the truth of it punched me in the stomach. Although she's talking about her adult son and not little kids like le Petit and Mademoiselle, I realized something important: my job here is to get out of the way. I must let my in-laws and le Petit (and Mademoiselle, too) have their own close, true relationship.

My mother-in-law brings over new dresses for Mademoiselle, and patches and re-patches up the knees in le Petit's trousers.  She knits sweaters and buys shoes and coats.  She comes over on Wednesdays to take le Petit to music class on her push scooter, and stays with Mademoiselle on weekday mornings so she can sleep in while my husband takes le Petit to school.  My father-in-law reads Babar and Mini-loup over and over and over again, colors pictures, makes special trips with le Petit to the library.  When they both babysit at night, Mademoiselle stays awake, squeezing every story and cuddle she can out of them and refusing to go to bed until we get home.  "But she'll cry if we put her down!" they explain when we walk in the door.  Mademoiselle smiles at us in triumph.

I used to see this as some validation of myself.  I felt loved because of the love they had for my kids.  Not consciously, but still.  Now I see how absurd this is.  Duh.  It's not about you, stupid.  And isn't that wonderful?  (Did I ever mention that I was a wee bit needy and self-centered at times before I had kids?)

My dad and stepmom will be in town right after le Petit gets back from La Rochelle, and it'll be their turn to shower the kids with unconditional grandparent love.  It isn't easy for them, since they live halfway around the world, but they go out of their way to make up for geography.  It seems to work, since le Petit regularly builds the Space Needle and Mount Rainier out of Legos alongside the Eiffel Tower.  Here, my job for the moment is more than to just to get out of the way: I try to make English, and Seattle, and my family and roots an important part of my kids' lives.  I won't let them forget chez maman. 

Someday, perhaps le Petit will fly as an unaccompanied minor on a transatlantic flight from Paris to Seattle.  Then I'll really freak out for sure.

In the meantime, in between the irrational anxiety that is part and parcel of parenthood, I'll remember that Le Petit and Mademoiselle are pretty lucky to be so loved, and be grateful on their behalf.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Frivolous, fabulous, feet

I was a high school nerd girl, the anti-fashionista.  Before I met my husband, I lived in oversized t-shirts and hiking boots.  Before I moved to Paris, I bought and wore one pair of shoes per season, and carried one purse until it fell apart.  Now I'm 35 years old and I still can't apply nail polish.  

But this is all changing.  It's a recent development.  I started investing in shoes a few years ago, for example, calculating the color and styles I want to add to my collection.  I approach it almost scientifically, observing the other parisiennes on my daily commute and analyzing what works and what doesn't.  A geek builds her style with an algorithm, of course.  Or maybe more of a heuristic.  And that makes it sound like it isn't any fun at all, when the truth is, I find it fascinating.  This isn't as expensive as it sounds, either, because I spend more time noticing and reflecting than I do actually buying things -- I don't have that much time to myself to go shopping, after all -- and when I do spend money, I'm much more sure of the result.

I've been working on this for a few years, but it all seemed to gel when I went back to work after Mademoiselle was born, for some reason I can't guess, because it isn't as if I had loads of free time to devote to my new look or anything.  Yet for the very first time recently, I've started to feel downright chic when I leave the house in the morning.  A couple days a week, anyway.

So, it went without saying that when sandal season rolled around I'd have to do something about my poor, neglected toes.  Running keeps me sane, and my feet keep me running (three days a week these days -- twice at lunch on weekdays, once on the weekend), so I realized that I probably should start taking care of them, at least symbolically.  No self-respecting Frenchwoman leaves the house in toe-revealing shoes without a proper coat of polish, and as I mentioned earlier, I can't apply polish myself.  Lord knows, I've tried.  I missed the window of opportunity to learn at age 14, and now it's simply too late.

Luckily I live upstairs from a day spa, or an institut de beauté as they're called here.  Neat, with discreet pink lettering on the window, it doesn't look like much from the outside, so for years I didn't pay it much attention.  But two years ago, when I was pregnant with Mademoiselle, on a whim I dared take my feet in for what was almost their very first pedicure.

The owner, J, tisk-tisked over the state of my toenails and the mess I'd made cutting them myself.  "But I can barely reach them these days!" I protested, happy for an excuse, for once.  Now I go in every couple months, and while J spends over an hour making my feet happy, we chat about French cooking.  She shares recipes for Basque Cake and clafoutis.  After a few visits, I decided I also needed to let her wax my eyebrows -- my 16-year-old nerdy self wouldn't have imagined such a process even existed -- and now they, too, look neat and worthy of a real Frenchwoman (though my husband can't tell the difference.)  My Parisian makeover is happening slowly, oui, but surely.

In the meantime, I found out that l'institut is the somewhat of a local best-kept secret.  It's very difficult to get an appointment, and a privilege when J pages through her calendar, whispering confidentially, "Let's see what we can do for you, shall we?"

Paris has been enjoying unseasonably warm March weather, and I was almost certain I wouldn't be able to get a pedicure last weekend on short notice.  But lo and behold, J snuck me in on Saturday.  Then when Saturday turned gray and cold, I walked the fifty feet back to my apartment in flip-flops to avoid smudging my perfectly polished apricot toes, hoping, as usual, that I wouldn't run into any neighbors.  No luck.  I stepped into the elevator with three stylish twenty-somethings.

"Oh, please, don't let them look at my feet," I thought.  I was the embarrassed geek again, standing there with my bizarre footwear. One of the girls looked down, then looked up at me and smiled knowingly.

"It's nice having [J's institut] right downstairs, isn't it?"

"Oh, yes!"

I felt -- no exaggeration -- like I'd passed some sort of test. That instead of the elevator floor opening up and swallowing me whole, I'd been vetted for an Elle photo shoot.  Not bad for a gal who used to carry her laptop in an army surplus backpack.

(And my feet felt heavenly, besides.)

Monday, April 02, 2012

Should I stay or should I go?

We found a fabulous apartment, perfect in almost every way: balcony overlooking a garden à la française with the chateau in the distance, a huge "parental suite" under the eaves, all located right in the neighborhood we want.  Almost perfect except (most notably) the price, which per-square-meter was outrageous, in our opinion.  We made an offer, and were laughed at.  We've decided that unless the seller gets desperate and calls us back later, or something else truly exceptional appears on the market in the next two weeks, we're staying put for another year. I cleaned our windows this weekend in celebration (?), and my husband scrubbed the balcony.  On the schedule in the next few weeks is figuring out how to fit Mademoiselle's crib -- currently next to our bed -- into le Petit's bedroom. Chez parisienne, we do anticlimactic with flair, n'est-ce pas?

And we spent the weekend hand-wringing and worrying and oh-why-oh-why-ing, intermittently griping and yelling at each other.  Are we pathetic for ended up at no decision, or wise?  I tried to maintain a sense of humor by putting on The Clash and writing up a list of the relative advantages of staying put or moving, in two columns entitled "Cool it" and "Blow."  I thought this was pretty clever.  My husband didn't.  Le Petit put his hands over his ears, while Mademoiselle bobbed her head and grooved when "Rock the Casbah" came on.

Le Petit tried to help us by drawing a map of Versailles with the château and park and a network of streets, with a big dot where our future house will be.  

"This is where we'll live.  Right here."

If only it were so simple...