An American in Paris: Living through the French Election

PARIS, FRANCE, APRIL 2017 - French presidential election official campaign flyers for the second round, opposing Marine Le Pen to Emmanuel Macron. (see bottom of article for photo credit)

France has never been a country for subdued political chit-chat. With eleven candidates in the first round of the French presidential election two weeks ago, there sure was room for debate. As round two approaches and with only two candidates left, conversations become increasingly heated. How do I know? I’m in the midst of it in France.

International media successfully made it seem like everyone in France was either pro-Emmanuel Macron (“wealthy professionals”), pro-Marine Le Pen, or pro-Jean-Luc Mélenchon (young-and-sometimes-bourgois-bohème). Although it is, in fact, coming down to Macron and Le Pen this Sunday, the reality is a bit more complicated. I looked at the people around me and learned a few things about elections in France.

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You can’t pick a debate with just anyone.

We’ve mentioned this before, but the French love a good family-stye debate. Gather your friends around a good meal, throw in an election, and enjoy the cacophonous discussion that follows. With friends, you can scream a little, throw your napkin on the table if you’re into dramatic flair, or storm off (to get some more wine for the table). Not with my in-laws, though. Like most voters over 60 in France, they supported conservative former Prime Minister François Fillon. His stance on social issues, especially his vocal criticism of same-sex marriage, and his statement that he has trouble setting money aside in savings made him fully unappealing to my inner voter. I had already waded into the topic of same-sex marriage and adoption with the in-laws a few years ago and it’s not territory I cared to revisit, so I looked the other way when the name Fillon popped up in the conversation.

The Great (Facebook) Divide

The red-vs-blue News Feeds from the American election last November is still in full swing here in France. “Finally, someone who can get France back on the right track!,” said a Fillon supporter on my News Feed. I scrolled down to read about “Saving the planet shouldn’t take a back seat” with Mélenchon, and “a future to look forward to” with Macron. My Facebook feed is all over the place, but it represents a pretty accurate mapping of my years in France through political affiliations and support: High school friends, who usually post petitions to protect animal rights, were fierce supporters of Mélenchon. Business school friends seemed enthralled by Macron’s youthful optimism, and acquaintances from very conservative families backed Fillon despite the growing accusations against him. No one (overtly) supporting Le Pen—perhaps my Facebook friends are simply too old, since polls show she grabbed a sizeable chunk of the youth vote.

L’Entre Deux Tours”, or the two weeks between the first and final round of the election, is a defining moment.

Everyone discusses what might-should-could happen, and how they’re going to vote. Mélenchon supporters on my Facebook were silenced, and have remained so. Disappointment, surely, and uncertainty emanates from those whose candidates were eliminated. Will Mélenchon’s followers head to the polls next Sunday? Will Fillon supporters, conservative and unmoved by Macron’s left-right dance, choose to stop Le Pen from storming forward, or push her to the presidency? As I peered at the texts coming in on my phone after round one results were announced, I realized abstention is a powerful threat: “I sure won’t be voting.” Others are doing their best to convince their network to do the opposite. Two friends getting married the week after the election recently sent out a message to guests: “White (the same French word for “blank,” i.e. blank ballots) is for brides only! VOTE on Sunday! #NOtoLePen”

Funny thing is, this doesn’t end on May 7th.

“If I don’t like Macron’s government picks, I’ll let him know in June”, I heard my husband say. Mid-June are the legislative elections, also known as an opportunity to give the new president a green or red light to getting anything done. France will elect a National Assembly that will help or obstruct the president from achieving his or her plans.

Mid-June legislative elections are weeks away… Looks like we still have some time left for dinner table debating. In the meantime, if your passport says République Française on the front, get out there and vote this week!

Featured image: Stock Photos from Guillaume Destombes/Shutterstock