Innovation Ecosystem

Witnesses to history, again

A personal account of what happened during the 2017 presidential election in France

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

A campaign poster from the recent French election depicting candidate Marine Le Pen as a photoshopped image of a hybrid Donald Trump, urging people not to "get Trumped" and to vote.

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

The authors, Peter Simon, left, and Toby Simon.

By Toby Simon and Peter Simon
Posted 5/22/17
In Paris to celebrate a 70th birthday, an American couple became witnesses to the historic French presidential election, offering insights into a changing France.

Why is it that the French seem to know more about our politics than we do about theirs? Does there need to be a better conversation around the economic pushes and pulls of globalization? When President Trump sits down to meet with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, will there be any common ground found? Will Scotland pursue a path toward independence in order to maintain its relationship with the European Union? How do the French perceive the attempt by Russia to disrupt their presidential election? How does the innovation economy work in France?
Emerging from a classified briefing by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee said: “This is about the fight for the soul of our democracy. We cannot afford to lose this one.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan had a different analysis when asked about how the potential troubles with Trump might affect the 2018 elections: “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah is what I say about that stuff. Look, this is what I call the white noise of the Washington-Beltway media. We’re busy doing our work.”
But what is that work? In the rush to pass Trumpcare, the repeal and replacement of Obamacare without hearings, it appears that the House may have passed a bill that does not fit within the budget boundaries of reconciliation, forcing the requirement of another vote to happen. Oops.
As the investigation deepens into the potential obstruction of justice by the Trump administration in allegedly attempting to thwart the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling with the 2016 election, Republican defenders of Trump in Congress may soon face the same dilemma that die-hard Republican defenders of Nixon faced in 1974: when the facts revealed that Nixon had been lying and covering up his involvement.
The night that Nixon resigned in 1974, in the few minutes before he gave his speech, he ordered that the TV cameras be turned off, but the CBS cameraman left his on. It captured the true Nixon, practicing his speech, promising that he would remember not to pick his nose. Once the cameras went live with his speech, there was the dramatic change in persona, as Nixon assumed his Presidential character.
The question is: how will the American people respond to the Trump presidential persona? Will they, as Cummings suggested, believe that it is a fight for the soul of our democracy? Or, will they believe, as Ryan suggested, that this is all white noise, blah blah blah blah blah? Stay tuned.

PARIS, France – We could not help but notice how different the “political scene” in France was, compared to ours.

There were no signs, pins, or bumper stickers of the two presidential choices, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. We were in Paris, a city where 93 percent of those who voted, cast their ballot for Emmanuel Macron. In the absence of traditional signage, it was impressive.

There were political posters plastered on the walls of the news kiosks throughout Paris, the majority being anti-Le Pen. She resembles our own Number 45, running on a platform of nationalism and anti-immigration.

Her campaign slogan was the equivalent of “Make America Great Again”: Choisir La France [Choose France]. Macron was considered a moderate.

Our favorite poster was a photo-shopped picture of Le Pen, sitting on a desk, with a Trump-like hairdo and orange makeup with a superimposed Trump face. The poster read: Ne Vous Trumpez Pas. Votez! [Don’t be/get Trumped. Vote!]

Talking Trump
Yet even without the signs as well as the 48-hour media blackout prior to the election, “la Presidentielle” was clearly on the minds of the French. And people wanted to talk about Trump. As horrified as they are about his Presidency, many people we spoke with had praise for America’s response to the election and the creation of what they see as a new resistance movement.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to us was how knowledgeable the French are about our political scene. They have been following 45’s escapades, histrionics and capers. They know much more about our politics than we do about theirs.

We stayed in an Airbnb in Paris, in the sixth arrondissement. Our hosts wanted to talk to us about 45 since they were still in shock that he won. His win, as well as the Brexit vote, worried our hosts.

While Monsieur was more convinced that Macron would win, Madame expressed concerns that LePen might pull off a win – a la Trump.

Our first day we were walking along the Rue du Cherche Midi when we stopped in a store called BENSIMON. Since that’s the name of our youngest son, we always like to stop and buy something. We were with our Berlin friends: he’s from Wales and she’s German. The saleswoman was warm and friendly; this was the new France. When she asked about where we were all from, she smiled at hearing the answer.

“Oh” she said. “Globalization! It’s a wonderful thing. I only hope we still have it after the election on Sunday.”

The night before the election we were invited to the home of old friends we first met in 1989 when our family lived in Paris. Joining us were three other couples we’ve known since that time, who had gathered to celebrate a big birthday [Toby's] as well as the birthday of our host, the following day. [Dinner parties in Paris begin at 8:30 p.m. and the cheese course is usually served around midnight. Therefore, we sang another round of happy birthday after lots of wine and fabulous food.)

It was pretty clear to all our friends that Macron would be the winner of the election. Le Pen had done poorly in her debate, sounding Trump-like and poorly prepared to bring any substance to the discussions brought by media pundits.

His “movement” was shifting gears to become a recognized party in anticipation of having candidates in all districts prior to the legislative election in June.

Most of the discussion, interestingly, focused on whether people in France would continue to support the European Union going forward, and whether their old value, what French call “solidarité,” would make the commitment to Europe a problem.

Not all agreed that there were many in France, besides young people, who were ready to define themselves as European before French. Our friends were concerned that Le Pen would continue to gain strength if Macron’s government was unable to resolve the high rates of unemployment in the de-industrialized parts of the county.

Islands of hope
We are both still struck by the wonderful diversity displayed in this group of friends. They are another one of our “islands of hope” that we’ve been creating since Nov. 8.

The birthday girl got birthday wishes in French, Welsh, English, Cambodian, Italian, Hebrew and Arabic that night. When that was all done, we sang the Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé!

The following night we were invited to an election-night gathering. Our hostess told us to arrive before 8 p.m., when the returns started. She said by 8:05 p.m., a winner would be declared.

And, at exactly 8:05 p.m., the news commentators declared Macron to be the winner. Certainly different than our election night returns, but there is only one time zone in France, and their system allows for the person with the most votes to be declared the winner. Imagine that.

Chronic economic stress
Two days after the election, we met some young friends for drinks in a hip bar/restaurant near the Place de La Republique. We were curious to learn about how younger people were seeing the election choices and what issues were important for them.

One of the women brought her significant other, Nicholas, a young Emergency Room resident, who like her, is in the midst of his preparation to be a physician. These three all talked about the failures of the Socialists to govern effectively and the chronic stress in France from the high unemployment and scarce opportunities for youth to make the transition from school to career.

All responded the same way to questions about what issue would Macron need to resolve to convince them that things could change for the better in France. Young people in France do not usually tell their peers or friends about whom they voted for, but with us, it was shared. All were for Macron. None felt that Le Pen had anything constructive to offer the French or Europeans in general. They expressed grave concern that many of their peers didn’t vote at all.

Witnessing history
We’ve witnessed history a few times while in France. The first was the Berlin Wall coming down in November 1989. This was, as 45 likes to say, “Huge.”

[The following month the French media reported on and even televised Romania’s President Ceausescu and his wife being executed by a firing squad.]

But election night 2017 will remain a most memorable historic event, coming at a time when we needed good news about the direction our world is going.

Oh, what a night! Watching Macron take an extremely long walk alone from the Louvre to the dais, to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” was breathtaking in its simplicity and significance.

It turns out that musical piece is known as the European anthem. Choosing the iconic Louvre rather than a military landmark in Paris to give his victory address was equally significant.

In a cab back to our apartment that evening, we drove along the Seine. Macron had just finished his speech. Under normal circumstances Paris by night is exquisite. But this night, it was even more so. As our cab drove past a beautifully lit Notre Dame, both sides of the streets were packed with ecstatic French men, women and children, waving flags and singing in the streets.

Bravo la France! Bien fait.


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