In the run-up to the second round of the presidential elections here in Paris, people asked me how a Marine Le Pen victory would affect the fashion industry. Given Emmanuel Macron’s victory, which was always a fairly safe bet, the question is no longer relevant—for the time being, at least—and, in any case, I have never claimed to be much good with crystal balls.
All I can tell you with any certainty is that Paris is strangely quiet. I see no jubilation in the streets or the cafés of my quartier. I live in a fashionable part of the fashionable 11th arrondissement where the white residents who can afford the property prices can also afford their brand of patronising liberalism, so the Front National has never enjoyed much support. Not obviously, at any rate. As French wags put it: “They live on the Left but vote on the Right.”
A Le Pen victory would probably have had little effect. Brexit is probably more of a threat to La Mode in Paris than neofascism, neoliberalism, extreme centrism, neobolshevism, neo-Islamism, Neo-Zionism, and all the other isms consuming the collective bandwidth. All those British designers the French owners of the major fashion conglomerates seem to favor over native talent will need working visas, which may be as hard to get as an 01 visa in Trump’s America.
Let’s get real here. Ms. Le Pen, like her father before her, is painted as the bête noire of the French political scene, but the Le Pens have always been more anti-disestablishmentarian than anti-establishment. As soon as a Front National victory seemed possible, if enough voters could not bring themselves to vote for the neoliberal candidate to keep the neofascist out, many people started being careful about what they did and said.
After the first round, much of the mainstream French media stopped using the most unflattering photos they could find of Le Pen. During the election campaign, Ms. Le Pen denied French responsibility for the rafle du Vél d’Hiv of July 1942 without provoking the media shitstorm and prosecutions that invariably greet her father’s repeated descriptions of Nazi gas chambers as “a detail of history.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the finer points of Franco-German cooperation during the Second World War, this episode involved the round-up of over 13,000 Jews in Paris, who were held in the indoor cycle race stadium known as the Vélodrôme d’Hiver in sweltering heat for five days with just one functioning water tap before deportation to Nazi camps. Very few came back. While the operation was part of the wider Nazi extermination program, it was carried out by the French police and gendarmerie controlled by the legitimate French government of the day.
Is this relevant 75 years later? Yes. France remains haunted by the specter of German occupation and Marshal Pétain’s anti-Republican État Français, which was the entirely legitimate authority in France from 1940 to 1944, when Charles de Gaulle’s Free French government arrived in Paris from London via Algiers and set about restoring the French Republic. The scars and the ghosts are still there and the FN remains tarnished by association because of its relationships with prewar and wartime French fascists in its early days.
And then there is the whole Algeria issue. Socialist President François Hollande’s father was highly placed in the OAS, the fascist Organisation Armée Secrète behind several assassination attempts against President de Gaulle over the French Algeria issue in the early 1960s. The book and the movie Day of the Jackal touch on this. Of course, a son does not necessarily endorse a father’s beliefs. But in a largely agrarian country like France, the power elites are small and closely related.
France can be hard for foreigners to fathom, probably more so than my native Ireland. The country’s first socialist President, François Mitterrand, was a youthful member of the fascist Croix-de-Feu movement in the 1930s and served as a junior minister in Pétain’s government, receiving the prestigious Order of the Francisque from Pétain before reinventing himself as a résistant after the Allied landings in France in 1944.
My building is perhaps 70% Jewish. A third of them are FN supporters because they see the FN as anti-Muslim. My attempts to explain the rashness of turkeys voting for Christmas are lost on them. The women look a bit like Ms. Le Pen, although they’re not real blondes. The men look tired. Some of my other neighbors evoke a more sinister France, the France of Pétain, of the Dreyfus Affair, of Emile Zola’s accusation.
If I leave doors open and lights on for my more devout neighbors on Friday night, the eve of Shabbat, one nasty old man in his late eighties sometimes follows me around, undoing my work and croaking, “May I remind you, Monsieur, that France is a Christian country!” He is not a ghost. He is very real and he likes to tell anyone who stands still long enough that he has known the building since 1938 and that his father, an accountant, was given the apartment by grateful Jews after the war because he saved their assets.
His father was a city hall bailiff who was also— allegedly — an officer in the fascist Franc-Garde militia, which might explain a property portfolio that includes at least half a dozen large apartments as well as numerous business premises and studio flats. The father certainly seems to have saved Jewish assets and most of the Jewish residents know this story but they do not mention it and several of them castigated me when I invited the old coffin-dodger to defenestrate himself. They stick together, the denizens of la douce France, united in misery.
But there is another France. When I go out in the morning, the concierge who hands me my mail and teases me when it contains a speeding fine is a gentle Senegalese Muslim. The brothers putting tables out on the pavement in front of their restaurant in the building are Egyptians who give me mint tea on the house when they see me waiting for a taxi. The scooter messengers congregating around the tables are all from North African families and smile warmly at me because I once fixed someone’s scooter.
The kiosk across the road where I buy my newspaper is run by two Tunisians whose love of debating politics and setting the world to rights is a match for any Irishman. The Pakistani flower seller who sells me a cheap rose for my wife is a former paratrooper, but that is not the only thing we have in common. He once lived in London. The café where I chug the acrid, black coffee that raises my heart rate in preparation for the gym is owned by Berbers whose love of political debate outdoes the Tunisians outside. The guy who greets me in the gym is French but of Algerian stock.
When my Uber arrives, the driver is almost always of North African or sub-Saharan descent, and rarely less than utterly charming. Yes, yes, I know! Having an Uber account merely serves to further the neoliberal agenda and its gig economy. So I have no business sneering at Macronites. Well, okay. But Uber has contributed to something else in France. It allows white French people, Christians, Jews, whatever, to meet Arabs and Blacks who simply do not conform to the frightening stereotypes that gained new currency in the wake of our leaders’ ill-conceived “War on Terror.”
I would like to think that some of those people took a deep breath, held their noses and voted for Macron to keep Le Pen out, who let the fox into the henhouse to keep the wolf at bay, because they see the same France I see every morning. A France of people just trying to get to the end of each day as it comes. Hopefully, the next five years will see further social and political evolution without too much mayhem.
In the end, though, the French people reminded us of why we love them, warts and all. They went to the polls and did what they felt was needed to defend their republic, their res publica. Remember the scene in Casablanca when the French and francophone clients of Rick’s place stand up and silence the Nazis by belting out the French national anthem?
The scriptwriter got that right about the French. They can be infuriating sometimes, but in the end, they can be relied upon the do the right thing. Or the right thing as they believe it to be. Now they will have to deal with the Macronites and their neoliberal agenda, of which the labour law reforms of 2016 that caused serious rioting are just the tip of the iceberg.
In fairness to Macron, he is simply the messenger reminding us that the money is running out. You don’t need a degree in finance to work out that fewer jobs mean lower tax revenues and an inevitable inability to buy the silence of the unemployed and unemployable in return for social security. Nor does expressing this grim truth make you a neofascist or a neoliberal. It merely makes you unpopular.
But fashion? It will always be there. It survived the grim years of the Second World War and a Nazi plan to transfer the cream of Paris fashion houses to Berlin, so even if France ends up with another fascist government in 2022 as a result of the Macronite austerity programs many anticipate over the coming five years, you’ll still be able to buy frocks and handbags bearing the familiar logos.