I had not intended so soon to re-visit the French presidential elections – except that on May 8, a French national holiday and two days after its people voted to oust President Nicholas Sarkosy and deliver to François Holland his first elective office, we were to take the Eurostar train through the Channel tunnel from Paris to London.
To show their gratitude for the election of the country’s second post-war Socialist leader, whose campaign promises had included an expanded public sector, higher wages and a return to shorter hours and youthful retirement, the nation’s customs agents staged work slowdowns at the airports and the rail stations, including Gare du Nord.
We had moved smoothly through the station’s sometime bottlenecks of ticket retrieval, check-in and French and British passport controls – only to stand stalled and helpless for a full hour, along with a back-up of mostly British tourists, while a bloated crew of blue-uniformed gens douanes herded luggage like tortoises through the metal detectors.
There being no reason other than passenger harassment for the unnecessary and glacially-paced opening of bags, re-screening of gift packages and second-level scrutiny of tickets and passports – the agents only returned to usual speed once their delaying tactics had forced a symbolic twenty-minute delay in the train’s departure, leaving the train staff and the entire passenger group sweating and frustrated.
Early in my expatriate years, my French secretary had explained the country’s characteristic labor bargain – which is that the general population will tolerate modest disruption with patience and sympathy, so long as the greves are limited in length, properly scheduled to begin and end on time, and understood not to force any real change in the state-dependent culture.
To generate that amount of ill-will, then – reminiscent of the Air France pilots’ strike on the eve of the 1998 World Cup – seemed gratuitous, counter-productive and futile.
Especially as the breadth of Hollande’s popular appeal was manifest not just in his 52% - 48% victory margin, but from the visual contrasts in the election-night television coverage. No translation was needed for an Anglophone – the screens showed Sarko’s supporters to be mostly elderly and entirely lily-white, correct and upright in their neck scarves and stiff upper lips – while the demonstrative Hollande crowds comprised the young, the African and the impatient.
To pay off that support, Hollande – derided as “Flamby” for the squishy, pudding-like insubstantiality beneath his anodyne leftist rhetoric – has the potential to work considerable disorder both to the country’s sovereign debt rating and to German-led plans to restore the European Union’s economies through austerity.
But with parliamentary elections approaching in early June, and Sarkosy’s ex-Gaullist party confronting the choice of relegation to the legislative wilderness or a devil’s bargain with Marine LePen’s record-setting far-right achievements in the first electoral round, it may be predicted that Hollande will postpone through the spring the payoff of his accumulated Socialist due bills.
That would mean that the sacred season of France’s summer holidays will be here before he has a chance to act on his promises of a confiscatory 75% tax rate, return of the 35-hour work week and other budgetary impossibilities.
Which in turn would put an optimist’s spin on the wisdom of American cowboy humorist Will Rogers, that “no man’s purse is safe while the legislature is in session.”
Meanwhile Hollande’s promise to bring home the French troops presently stationed in harm’s way in Afghanistan would have one benefit: they could be re-deployed to luggage-screening duty at the gares, putting some substance behind Eurostar’s attempts to run its trains on time.
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