Gavin Mortimer

Privilege vs poverty in the French election

Privilege vs poverty in the French election
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In a few hours France will know who has won the presidential election. Macron, predict the polls – though Marine Le Pen’s National Rally remain convinced that the ‘voice of the street’ will sweep them to power.

The truth, however, is that there will be no winner from this election. Macron told Le Pen during Wednesday’s live television debate that her wish to ban the headscarf would precipitate a ‘civil war’, but France is already at war with itself. Macron vs Le Pen is how it has manifested itself this month but the battle lines were first drawn a decade or more ago as the effects of globalisation began to bite in what is called la France Périphérique.

These are the people who overwhelmingly vote for Le Pen, the men and women who live outside the cities and work in poorly paid jobs. In the first round of voting, 37 per cent of those categorised as défavorisé (disadvantaged) voted for Le Pen and 13 for Macron, while for the ‘privileged’ demographic it was 8 and 53 per cent respectively.

France Périphérique feels neglected by Paris and belittled by a media and cultural elite which makes little attempt to conceal their disdain.

In hindsight the death of their idol Johnny Hallyday in December 2017 was poignantly symbolic. He was one of them, his songs resonated with them like no other singer, and when he died they came to Paris in their thousands. Macron was there to say ‘adieu’, an incongruous sight because France knew that Johnny was a working class hero. But as Le Figaro remarked the president made an appearance to ‘reconcile himself with the low-brow France’. 

But he didn’t. Less than a year later his government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, lit the fuse for the Yellow Vest movement by describing those who objected to the imposition of a green fuel tax as ‘people who smoke cigarettes and drive diesel cars… not the 21st-century France we want’.

By the autumn of 2018 such contempt for the ploucs (yokels) was commonplace in Paris. The president led by example, describing the lower echelons of society as ‘slackers’ and ‘resistant Gauls’, and sneering to an unemployed gardener in search of work that he wasn’t looking hard enough. ‘I can find you a job just by crossing the street,’ he told him.

As I wrote at the height of the Yellow Vest movement, as the police maimed and disfigured protestors each week, the silence from the celebrity world was deafening. Barely a squeak of support, in contrast to their noisy championing of demonstrators in Gaza or Venezuela. But then when did a progressive ever have anything positive to say about a plouc?

In the last fortnight, however, France’s artists, athletes and intellectuals have rediscovered their voice. Newspapers have on a daily basis almost run open letters signed by dozens of worthies urging the electorate to vote for Macron. Doctors have also denounced Le Pen, so too Nobel Prize-winning economists and business tycoons like Mourad Boudjellal. Last week at a rally in Marseille attended by Macron, he told the crowd that people who vote for Le Pen are ‘racists’.

What must the ploucs think when they hear such insults? What must they say to themselves when sports stars and singers and actors, who make more in a year than they will earn in a lifetime, treat them with such cold indifference.

The likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Béatrice Dalle and the millionaire basketballer Tony Parker have no idea of the daily struggle endured by millions in the run-down France Périphérique.

These celebrities think they signal their virtue in signing letters but they are merely advertising their contempt for the millions who will today vote for Le Pen. There may well be among them a minority who hold views similar to those of Le Pen’s bigoted father but the majority are not racists or reactionaries; they are hard-working men and women who for too long have felt disrespected and neglected by a wealthy political and cultural elite. Their arrogance, their entitlement and their startling absence of empathy have angered and alienated great swathes of the country, especially the 14.6 per cent (9.2 million people) who live below the poverty line, an increase of half a percent since the year Macron took office.

If the ‘President of the Rich’, is re-elected this evening, Macron must be magnanimous in victory, and he and his supporters must in the months and years ahead show empathy not enmity to those less fortunate themselves. If they don’t, then France Périphérique may come to Paris in person to protest.

Written byGavin Mortimer

Gavin Mortimer is a British author who has lived in Paris for 12 years. He writes about French politics, terrorism and sport.

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