Sunday, February 12, 2017

New World/Old World

I can't help but wonder if the timing was off to re-brand themselves les Républicains.  But that's a singularly American way to look at things: beyond the similar spelling and pronunciation, the center-right French party shares little with the party of Lincoln, never mind the party of Trump.  Still, after five years of the hapless presidency of the Socialist François Hollande, they were supposed to easily win the presidential contest in May, but that was before their candidate François Fillon was accused of arranging a fraudulent work contract for his wife while he was a member of the National Assembly.  The practice is apparently not uncommon -- just French politics as usual, I've been told -- but Fillon had presented himself as a common-sense, fiscally and socially conservative candidate who wanted to cut hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs.  His wife, legitimately employed or not, was reportedly paid unemployment at the end of her contract.  Though he vows to continue his campaign, Fillon's polls have plummeted since the news broke, and we're left anxiously wondering who of the remaining candidates might effectively fight the far-right Marine Le Pen.

The mainstream French political landscape used to be binary, the center-left Socialists versus the center-right Gaullists.  The Communists had considerable clout after WWII but never enough to challenge the presidency of the 5th Republic, which was established in 1958.  The then-devised two-round presidential election, in which only the two candidates with the strongest showing continue to the second round, was put in place to keep extreme parties in check. But now French politics appear to be carved into rough quarters, the most solid one belonging to the far right National Front party whose extreme platform would cut immigration and take France out of the Euro Zone.  Mainstream right and left fight to divide the middle fifty percent, and a heterogeneous far left roughly claims the rest.  This is why although Marine Le Pen is the current frontrunner in the election, many doubt her chances of winning: in the second round, it is assumed more will be mobilized to vote against her than for her. 

This schema of fourths was described today on L'Esprit public, a political show on the national radio station France Culture.  I've been listening to France Culture on my commute somewhat obsessively since the American election.  When the news is catastrophic, I find it helps to hear intelligent people describe it calmly even if nothing they have to say is particularly reassuring.  I tuned in in the middle of the day on Sunday and discovered L'Esprit public, which not only took the same sane and measured tone, but managed to sound to me exactly like Meet the Press or the PBS News Hour, shows which were regular background noise in my childhood living room.  Back then, I assumed the world was run by rational adults who would do their best not to destroy it. I was too young to have practiced duck-and-cover drills in elementary school, and the Berlin Wall fell when I was middle school. I fell into an auditory cocoon of comforting nostalgia.

The commentators segued from French politics to the first month of the Trump administration, which was somewhat rattling despite the PBS-like voices.  As the Economist pointed out, much of Trump's talk is nothing new to Europeans.  But the America they suddenly have to engage with is utterly new.  It was noted that the checks and balances in the United States were beginning to function, both formally though the judiciary and popularly in the street.  One commentator rushed to say something close to "maybe it will all be okay" when another interrupted to anxiously wonder about America's new chaotic diplomatic policies. 

I'm trying to stay calm, inform myself enough (but not so much that I'm obsessing) from the right sources, and recognize the limits of my control over this suddenly crazy world.  Two months until the French election and counting.  

Wednesday, January 04, 2017


On an afternoon in early September I decided to park the car in the garage and pick up the kids on foot.  The school is only a ten minute walk from our apartment, but most days I take the easy option of swinging by in my car on my way home which saves me some time and some kid-herding.  But on this particular day the late summer sun was shining and I decided a block or two under the neat rows of linden trees would do me good. Mademoiselle had just started CP, the French equivalent of first grade and thus her first year in primary school.  Le Petit had just started CM1, the equivalent of fourth grade.  I suddenly had two big kids.  If I could make time slow down for a walk home from school, I'd take it.  

Once the car was in the garage, I left the building and started down the sidewalk, walking briskly since I was slightly late, swimming upstream while most of the other folks were heading back home.  I crossed a father and his three kids, neighbors in our building, and said hello.  I greeted another kids and his mother.  I nodded and smiled at another neighbor.  And just before I crossed the street, I saw one of Le Petit's friends, walking home on his own.  

When I got to the school, I realised I'd never before lived anywhere when I could walk down the street and recognise and be recognised by so many people.  Even back in the US, my life was from house to car to office, and the neighbors I knew by name could be counted on one hand. When I lived in the dense suburbs just outside of Paris, I hid in the anonymity of urban life and rarely exchanged more than a brief "Bonjour" with anyone.  Now in Versailles I felt like I belonged, which both startled and pleased me. 

For this I can probably thank Mademoiselle and Le Petit, who seem to know all the kids who go to their elementary school and a good number of their parents, and who fill me in when I'm clueless.  I'm an introvert, and I doubt I would've gotten here on my own.  But I also marvel that I've finally found a village for myself, in the suburbs of a city in another country on the other side of the world.