Dispatches by Lauren Collins.
HOLLANDE: THE VIEW FROM LONDON
London, with three hundred thousand French residents, is France’s sixth-largest city. Many of them gathered on Sunday night at the Institut Français, in South Kensington, which—with its patisseries, crêperies, francophone real-estate agents (“On parle français”), and chain-smoking lyceéns—has come to be known as Paris-on-the-Thames. (Bute Street, home to The French Bookshop and the Raison d’Être café, is nicknamed “Frog Alley.”) At 6:15, the mood at the Institut was already celebratory. French law prohibits the release of election results until 8 P.M., but the law, which was made in 1977, fails to account for the Internet, and so, for one day every five years, French citizens lap up the news from Belgium and Switzerland, whose Web sites operate under no such constraints. The Institut was showing the TV5 broadcast on a big screen that had been hoisted above a grand staircase. The line for the bar was of English proportions, but its bumptiousness let you know where you (spiritually) were standing. Ten seconds or so before 7 P.M. (8 P.M. French time), a New Year’s Eve style countdown broke out. Cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un—TV5 unfurled a tricolore runner-carpet graphic, which led to an image of the Elyseé, emblazoned with the face of François Hollande. The Institut crowd broke out in cheers. “On a gagné ”—“we won!”—the partygoers chanted. They were climbing up the staircase, hanging off the bannisters, as though it were the Bastille.
This was a surprise. The French who live in London, many of them working in finance, aren’t here for the Neal’s Yard bath products and Marks & Spencer digestive biscuits (although, according to a French woman I know, these are hotly requested imports for the folks back home). They live in London because London has more jobs, at which they can make more money, while paying fewer taxes. If South Kensington is Paris’s twenty-first arrondissement, as it is sometimes said, and the crowd at the Institut was any guide, French voters were so eager to repudiate Sarkozy that they did so in full disregard of their economic self-interest. A French friend who came to London to work for a financial firm voted for Hollande largely because of his distaste for Sarkozy and for Sarkozy’s entourage—here you can watch Nadine Morano, Sarkozy’s minister for apprenticeships and training, hassling a Senegalese vendor (“we can’t welcome all the Senegalese”). But voter’s remorse was kicking in for the expatriate even before the results were announced. A vote for Hollande, he said, a few hours after having cast it, would perhaps make for a more united France, but it risked being a more united France that he wouldn’t want to live in. “I’ll never be able to find a job in France if Hollande is elected!” he said. “Why did I vote for this guy?” The question was not rhetorical.
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, would have preferred he didn’t. In February, Hollande came to London to address the Paris-on-Thames crowd—“I am not a dangerous man,” he said, not long after proposing a top tax rate of seventy-five per cent, and having naming finance his “greatest enemy.” (In 2007, hoping to staunch the flow of French talent to the United Kingdom, Sarkozy told them, “France is still your country, even if you’re disappointed by it.”) Cameron, who supported Sarkozy, refused to meet Hollande, leaving the honors to the opposition leader Ed Miliband, who invited Hollande to Westminster and fed him a lunch of Yorkshire pudding and roast beef. On Sunday night, after the early results were in from France and Greece—where the neo-Fascist party Golden Dawn won twenty-one parliamentary seats—Cameron published a piece in the Telegraph. The headline read, “I get the message—but reform takes time.” Ostensibly, the piece was a response to the results of the previous week’s local elections in the United Kingdom—a disaster for Cameron’s Tories—but it was also a riposte to the European elections, the regime’s defense of austerity that Cameron’s government has pursued with steely will, and that the French and the Greeks had rejected, whether it is good for them or not. “I loathe with a passion the bankrupt, high-taxing, something for nothing society left behind by Labour, and I am in politics to change it,” Cameron wrote.
On the Labour side, Ed Miliband cheered Hollande’s election, framing it as a victory for the European left at large, rather than an isolated national result. “This new leadership is sorely needed as Europe seeks to escape from austerity,” he said in a statement, arguing, in essence, that a vote for Hollande was a future vote for him. David Miliband, Ed’s older brother (and his rival in the 2010 contest for the Labour party’s leadership), weighed in with a piece in the Times, hailing Hollande’s victory, craftily, as “an outbreak of electoral realism.” He wrote, “He comes from the pragmatic, not to say technocratic, centre of the party. Mr. Hollande knows an economic cul-de-sac when he sees one. He lived through the 1981 Mitterrand experiment and has no interest in a retreat to the land of economic make-believe. But you don’t need to live in the past to seek an alternative to economic masochism.” In the vocabulary of the newly emboldened left, the opposite of austerity is not plenitude, but pragmatism. Expect to hear plenty of the P-word. Now that Hollande has sold himself to 51.6 per cent of the French electorate as an agent of epoch-making change, his main task it to convince the rest of the world that, by reviving the French left, he isn’t going to kill the Euro.
Photograph by Denis Allard/REA/Redux.