Made in France

Straight Outta Sarthe

So! It’s been a while. As you may have heard, we in Washington have had a curious past few weeks. The number of protests I have attended since January 20th now sits at 4 (the preceding 30-year average was 0), and I’ve gotten pretty good at protest dress, protest sign-making, and protest chanting, among other things. The flurry of executive belches emerging from the depths of what was once America’s great seat of statesmanship has been terrifying yet seemingly inescapable; I’ve had to enact strict limits on how long I can actually spend on social media tracking this race to drive America off a cliff, because otherwise that’s all I’d be doing all day.

Fortunately, France, too, has delivered some excitement, with erstwhile poll leader François Fillon snagged up in a scandal already hashtag-christened #PenelopeGate. Now, I know I wrote in November that the 2017 French presidential election had basically already been decided in favor of the guy who actually ended up losing to Fillon, so my France-dar is maybe a little wonky, and the rest of this should therefore probably be taken with caution. However, Fillon’s stumbles do make for an important lesson in accidental political self-immolation that should be required reading for all poli sci students going forward.

I learned of Fillon’s primary win while watching the sun set over Rio from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain – very romantic – and figured the election was over, they’d just subbed in Fillon for Juppé. This very nice man (really, a perfectly charming guy) now had it in the bag – I wasn’t a fan of his political platform, but I, too, bought the “propriety” and “integrity” lines, and no one else seemed capable of mobilization. I had to chuckle-cry at the media reactions to him mentioning that he’s both a Gaullist and a Christian – “IS SECULARISM UNDER ASSAULT?!” read the tickers onscreen, and I just wept for America, where people who believe hurricanes are caused by gay marriage get reelected without any issues. My reaction was akin to that of a whiny tween – “but how come Fraaaaance gets a progressive humanistic democracy based on intelligence and reason and not meeeeeee?” (One possible answer to this question is provided a bit further down.) All I’ll say for now is y’all don’t know how good you have it.

Anyway. Back to Fillon. All of a sudden it all came crashing down – first with the revelation that he’d paid his wife half a million, wait, no, almost a million euro for work she may or may not have completed (or even known about?), then with a “communications” “plan” that began with accusations of misogyny, then slander, followed by struggles with chronology and brand new versions emerging every time another surrogate appeared before a media microphone, or roughly twice an hour. It’s carried on since, and fresh manure is scheduled to be dropped toward the middle of next week, unless he drops out beforehand. There’s talk of a nationally televised mea culpa staged for tomorrow night GMT, and you bet I’ll be glued to seven screens in that moment, but… talk about a fall from grace. I honestly can’t see how he can crawl out of this at this stage and continue a campaign built on calls of austerity and belt-tightening (or anything else, really), but there’s no replacement mechanism built into the primary statutes, and there doesn’t seem to be a winnable Plan B. He seems to hold his moral stature in very high regard, so if the pressure really gets to be unbearable, he’ll probably fold at the expense of further ridicule. Some major outlets have already mentioned that Juppé could, theoretically, be persuaded to run (and my earlier prediction could turn out to be right for all the wrong reasons), but I don’t see a good way out of this for anybody.

The English-language press has declared the Fillon situation “business as usual” for French politics, but again, some perspective is useful here. We have a kleptocrat in the White House who watches Finding Dory in the afternoons, gets too tired 25 minutes into a phone call with a lead ally, and replaces the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs with his Nazi BFF. I’m once again tempted to point out that where I come from, France’s current political “crisis” is very, very small potatoes indeed 🙂

It does, however, underscore a crucial point for the Nth time: the French are just better at this whole democracy thing. They’re culturally more demanding of their elites, they’re more philosophical and thus measured in their approach, and they care about platforms, policies, rights, liberties, and FACTS. They care about what their policies say about France as a nation and as a world power, they understand principles and why they’re important, and even the least palatable and most controversial messages are delivered using turns of phrase that demonstrate respect for the intelligence of their electorate. I mentioned to a friend of mine that this is “the most intellectually rigorous WTFery I’ve ever witnessed”, and it’s true – nowhere has a political scandal been publicly litigated with such finesse in phrasing.

All of that aside, all I really want to talk about at this stage is Mr. Emmanuel Macron. He got off to a bit of a slow start, and I figured he’d eventually position himself as a protest vote candidate to get some media exposure and regroup for 2022. I was very, very wrong. I’d been following him with some intensity ever since he joined the government (because I am a straight woman with eyes), but once he warmed up, he became pure magic, and he just gets better every time. Yesterday’s rally in Lyon was absolutely mesmerizing, I’d never seen anything like it – he’s brilliant and he’s just an extraordinary orator, I think the young Obama comparisons are spot on in this regard. I cannot wait to watch him eat the rest of them for dinner at the first big debate, and with the way Fillon’s gone, I think he has a really solid shot at this. My current predictions for the first round stand at Le Pen 24%, Macron 24%, Hamon 18%, Fillon/Juppé 16%, Melenchon 8%, Jadot 3% and crumbs for the rest, with Macron cleaning up the second round neatly. (As I’ve mentioned before, Le Pen doesn’t stand a mathematical chance in the second round, and it’s frustrating to keep seeing this brought up. The very structure of the French electoral system is designed specifically to prevent the fringes from taking over.)

Here’s Macron in Lyon, being perfect:


On the application front, I have an almost-finished CV and an almost-finished lettre de motivation – it’s only missing two sentences. I’ve also been practicing speaking with a very nice French teacher from Poitiers, trying to devote more time to reading the very large number of books I want to finish, and averaging about 6 hours a day on consumption of French media – mostly political talk shows, news broadcasts, podcasts, and other useful things. My comprehension is at 100%, with very rare exceptions, and my expression is rapidly gaining fluidity – I’m living proof that the AJATT method really works. The difference between September and now is indescribable – I don’t even think about the fact that I’m watching something in French anymore, I don’t translate in my head, and I have entire groups of terms I understand implicitly in French without any sort of English equivalent handy. I still have a long way to go before I feel ready to interview, though, and I absolutely need to be speaking more, hours every day, whenever possible. I’ll write a little more about the mechanics behind how I’m gaining fluency next time.

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