Vive La France! Lessons The UK Can Learn From Hollande’s Election Victory

Hollande's victory for the French Socialist Party in the weekend's Presidential Elections provoked outpourings of emotion and solidarity of the sort rarely seen in the UK, says Joe Kennedy. Photograph thanks to Valerio Berdini

The girl on the stanchion above us was only six or seven, but remained in her vantage point for well over two hours, waving a Left Front flag with undiminishing enthusiasm. At the foot of the lamp post, her parents were peering through the crowds towards the giant screen on the opposite side of the vast Place de la Bastille. It was almost one in the morning before Francois Hollande, France’s incoming Socialist president, arrived from his provincial constituency to address the half a million or so who had been assembling since early evening.

By that point, many in his audience were tired and emotional to varying degrees, having smothered the pavements around the Colonne de Juillet with empty beer bottles and thickened the air with hash smoke. Indeed, aspects of what was taking place bore striking similarities to a large rave. A number of warm-up speakers and performers – including former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, ex-PM Lionel Jospin and a trio of Berber feminists – provoked increasingly intense emotional responses ahead of the coming of the highly-anticipated headline act. Meanwhile, strobes flickered across the heads of those gathered, and teenagers from the banlieues flew the colours of Algeria or the Côte d’Ivoire alongside those of France and various left-wing groups.

For the British observer, both unavoidable and unfamiliar was that Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat had been responded to in a way so demonstratively public. Although the Parti Socialiste had made provisions for a celebration in the event of victory, the nature of what was happening at the Bastille resembled a spontaneous display of feeling far more than it did a stage-managed political rally. Most significantly, though, the feeling in question amounted to a desire to mark the striking of a blow for the French and European left in a fashion which disestablished the boundaries between the private individual and the collective. This wasn’t simply an exuberant reaction to the overthrow of an increasingly ludicrous leader: it was representative of a commitment to a particular way of experiencing public space which is written into socialism’s DNA.

Looking at the hundreds of young people of diverse ethnic and religious background chanting and setting off flares on the Colonne, it was difficult not to reflect on the improbability of such a scene taking place in modern Britain. We struggle nowadays to produce the kind of broad-church leftism displayed in Paris, where old-fashioned trade unionists embraced the company of young families, student radicals and kids from the city’s sink estates. In theory, ideologically-driven cuts, a government which bends without fail to the will of the City and of media conglomerates, the masquerading of driven Machiavellians like Boris Johnson as matey ‘buffoons’ and surface-to-air missiles on tower block roofs constitute a cumulative weight of wrongness sufficient to bring such attitudes into being. In practice, however, oppositional politics in this country are notable either for their absence or their partiality.

There’s dissent here, of course, but it tends to be issue-specific or divisive. Occupy drew sympathy from people who would never in a million years have participated in it, but it also struck many as somewhat preening and vanguardist. The anti-cuts movement is impressively inclusive, but tends to articulate its demands in negative terms: generally speaking, it’s more against austerity than for systemic change. A significant number of Scots have responded to the misgoverning of the UK by turning towards a nationalist party who favour washing their hands of what are regarded as English problems. Meanwhile, last year’s riots were spurred by resentments which were political in essence but manifested themselves in nihilistic violence and spectacles of aggression, angering huge numbers of those who have lost most in David Cameron’s extension of the neoliberal experiment.

That the immediate response to Hollande’s victory should resemble one of Britain’s greatest twentieth-century contributions to the category of collective experience is telling. Clichéd as it sounds, rave picked up the baton of responsibility for producing a sense of shared popular purpose from both football, which was undergoing quasi-privatisation from the late 1980s onwards, and left politics, which had been damaged by Thatcherism, the apparent victory of capitalist ideology in the Cold War, and (to a certain extent) by its own sectarianism. Parties in warehouses or Surrey woodlands were driven at least in part by the need to maintain the possibility of collective experience in the face of the damage sustained by its traditional vehicles. One saw this play for continuity at the time of the Criminal Justice Bill, which was challenged in a way that clearly demonstrated how rave had absorbed and repurposed some of the energies of more explicitly political movements. But something has shifted. Almost imperceptibly, rave segued into festival culture. And with their meaning having altered considerably during the interim years, like ‘uni’ and ‘traveling’, any broader social purpose that was once ascribed to festivals has been obscured by the rhetoric of ‘having an experience’, which fosters one’s self-regard as an autonomous individual.

The fact that the victory of a moderate leftist such as Hollande provoked such joy can be read variously. Pragmatists will say that resentment at Sarkozy was the driving force; pessimists might point out that the European left has been weakened to such an extent over the last ten years that its supporters have become like the proverbial football fans whose club is so woeful that a throw-in becomes cause for cheer. Against this, it needs to be remembered that Hollande’s share of the second round of polling included as many as five million votes transferred from parties and groupings such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s appealingly anti-corporate Left Front and smaller radical organisations. This means that his mandate rests, to some extent, on those with an active antipathy to relentless privatisation and vandalistic, market-appeasing austerity measures. It also demonstrates that socialism has not, as some would still try and have you believe, become utterly divorced from a popular base.

Bearing this in mind, the real lesson for depressed Britain lies in the togetherness visible in the celebration of the Parti socialiste’s win. This summer will give us plenty of ‘public’ events which affirm the status quo: there’s the Jubilee, with the inevitable performatively communitarian tea parties, as well as the Olympics (brought to you by some beer company, some mobile phone company, and several defence contractors). Like the festivals (of which there will be no shortage this summer either), these simulate authentic collective experience while offering no space in which to question dominant political narratives or produce new ones. It would undoubtedly be fantastic to see kids aloft on their parents’ shoulders in Trafalgar Square celebrating not the longevity of an unelected ruler but the coming to power of a party who offered a more equitable political vision than those currently on offer. If this is to happen, however, it’s essential that a reassessment of the meaning and value of public experience takes place sooner rather than later.

Photo by Valerio Berdini

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