Like many people studying French, when confronted with the compulsory year abroad, I opted for a twelve month stay in the city of culture and romance itself – Paris. Idyllic and charming, the French capital is a great place for internship work, full of young people from across the globe, all being youthful and trendy and hypercool together. However, tension is in the air in the City of Lights, as on 23 April, the people of France go to the polls in the most dramatic general election in recent history.
Following the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump (neither of which went down well here), the 2017 presidential election is expected to be a key test for Western democracy and its resilience to the rise of far-right populism. Here the latter is manifested in the current frontrunner, Marine Le Pen, whose Front National party is trying to replace its reputation for outdated xenophobic populism with slightly more internet-savvy xenophobic populism.
Closely following her is bright young liberal, Emmanuel Macron, a former banker who commands a large following despite lacking a real political party. Not far behind him are Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the grumpy leftist with a notable stage presence, and François Fillon, a traditional conservative who has spent the last few months mired in scandal but is, like Elton John, still standing.
“I am never far from some electoral action”
Naturally, being in or around the city everyday means that I am never far from some electoral action. Despite their national stereotype for indifferent shrugging, the French are often very politically opinionated. The election is everywhere, with every lamppost, bus stop and even primary school walls plastered with posters loudly proclaiming support for one of the eleven candidates.
Rallies and street demonstrations are hugely popular, as I found out first-hand when some of us decided to be proper international students and join a major anti-Trump march in the city centre. As the vast column of protestors snaked through the streets around the Champ de Mars, surrounded by armour-clad riot police, all the scene needed was a stirring soundtrack and it would have looked just like a modern-day Les Mis.
Election fever permeates the workplace as well. In my first job in central Paris, the number one topic every lunchtime was always politics. When they weren’t quizzing me on Brexit or asking difficult questions about Nottingham (“Robin Hood didn’t really exist?”), my French colleagues were eager to get their political views across.
“I am anxious to see how it will affect both my position and those of future UoN students”
These varied from someone who inherently distrusted all politicians to a woman who, despite chatting very enthusiastically about Macron, still planned to vote for conservative scandal-magnet François Fillon.
It is much the same for people I have lived with or even just spoken to in public. Whether they reckon Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s plan for a new republic is the only way forward, or whether they prefer the grey-haired, financially questionable ‘family values’ of Monsieur Fillon, everyone has an opinion. And boy are they keen to make sure you know it.
“The knock-on effects [of Frexit] would probably make life for a British student in France a whole lot more expensive”
Looking ahead to the result (the first round on 23 April is followed by a head-to-head between the two highest scorers on 7 May), I am anxious to see how it will affect both my position and those of future UoN students planning to work or study in France within the next few years.
With Brexit already meaning that our Erasmus grant is no longer guaranteed, the extreme rhetoric of the 2017 election only adds to the feeling of uncertainty.
Perhaps, should a more centrist candidate such as Macron or Fillon win, little will change for incoming foreign students.
However, the growing success of Eurosceptic candidates (such as Mélenchon) means that there is always the possibility of a ‘Frexit’ (I hate the word already), the knock-on effects of which would probably make life for a British student in France a whole lot more expensive and paperwork-filled.
And then, of course, there’s Marine Le Pen. I’ve not yet spoken to a single person who thinks she’ll win the second round, but given that it’s only been four months since Donald Trump became the actual President of the United States, well…I’d rather not think about what could happen. I just know it wouldn’t be pretty.
Image: Sam Young