“Don’t sell our children’s heritage” reads the banner behind me. Much to my amazement I am seated in the place of honour, next to the Colonel, on the high table at the pre-election political rally on behalf of the resistance.
My resistance was futile. Before I could say “pas moi sil vous plait” I was on the list for the local election and being harangued by mothers at school.
“You’re presenting yourself on the list,” said one who is normally very friendly. “With the colonel,” she spat out before walking past me in disgust. It’s amazing how politics in France stirs up such venomous feelings.
I am about to encounter more. I sit there behind a sign with my name on it, hastily preparing my introductory speech. I have just been told by the Colonel that a few words are in order: name, rank, occupation that sort of thing. I spot three women in the front row whom I see walking their dogs close to my house every day. When I drive past them they wave merrily. Tonight when I wave, they stare back at me. They have their arms folded in front of them and a furious air. One of them even has furious hair. It looks like she’s stuck her finger in a plug. Maybe she has, just to appear more menacing, rather like an African fetish.
The fifteen members of the list present themselves. We are the ‘Together we will serve Gabian’ party, made up of people from all walks of life. One is a rather dashing 63-year-old retired bank director, another is a housewife, another a wine maker (always useful to have on the team), another a teacher. And then there’s me. Billed as “British Sunday Times journalist”.
I listen carefully to what the others have to say before it’s my turn. Some fool tells them all how old she is. It’s too early to start lying for me. I pick up a few key phrases like “to serve the village” and “for the greater good” and note them down. I have been asked by the Colonel to mention that I am here to represent the European community. He stresses that is it “la” European community. “You English always say la when it should be le and le when it should be la,” he adds. “And you French always look like you’re about to win the rugby and then don’t,” I’m tempted to add, but this is his night and I’m here to support him.
“The opposition is here in force,” he says nervously as we watch people file in.
“Amazing they’re on time,” I say. “Either they’re extremely politically motivated or just very thirsty.”
All too quickly it’s time for my speech. “I have lived in Gabian for seven and a half years,” I begin. “I am an author and a journalist. I’m English, which you may have noticed.” Not a murmur, just a sea of unwelcoming faces. It reminds me of the time I made a speech in Montpellier about how to live a day like a Frenchman, in front of a lot of Frenchmen. The only person who laughed was a woman from Yorkshire. Sadly she’s not here this evening.
“I am also a mother of three,” I continue. “And on the list to serve the school. And to represent the (la) European community.”
“Very good,” whispers the Colonel when I finish. I see a glittering career in front of me. I am the Hillary Clinton of Gabian politics I tell my husband this when I come home.
“Where’s my intern then?” he asks.
After our individual introductions and the Colonel’s summary of his manifesto there are questions from the floor. I can only conclude that French political meetings exist for the sole purpose of settling old scores and bitching about your neighbours. First up is a woman who “won’t mention names” but declares that there are villagers who have not paid their water bills for four years, and that this is why our bills have risen by 10% a year. Water is an emotive issue.
“Our source is our father,” declares one man. I suddenly feel like I’m in Manon des Sources, but where’s that handsome schoolteacher?
“I have been in education for 33 years,” says a disgruntled punter in the front row (why are they always at the front?). “I find it cognitively tough to understand your statement about not selling our children’s heritage. Can you explain this clearly and concisely please?”
Asking any Frenchman to explain something concisely is just ridiculous, but the Colonel does very well.
“I mean that the standard of living for our children should not deteriorate because of excessive urbanisation of the village,” he says. Hear, hear.
Then the Juliette Binoche double stands up. There’s always one. “What I want to know,” she says, flicking her lime-green scarf around her neck and gesticulating like she’s about to launch into a Molière monologue or a tap-dance, or maybe both, “is how are you going to pay for the things on your manifesto, like the free after-school care and the youth theatre.”
“Well Madame, you’ve managed to create some free theatre here this evening,” says the Colonel calmly. “We will do the same.”
An ancient man shuffles up to the stage to take the microphone. He complains that the last time he had to buy a knee-support it cost 30 euros and he had to pay 10 of that himself. Quelle Horreur.
“We’re here to deal with the future of the village,” says the Colonel, “not your knee or state directives that I have no control over.”
“Do you know what that old man did during the war?” whispers my neighbour to me. “When the allies dropped gold and francs for the Resistance he stole it all and used it to build his house. I’m going to tell him to shut up afterwards.”
Just as we’re about to get up and have an apéritif, a man storms in and marches straight up to the table.
“Can I not ask a question just because I’m late?” he shouts as he sees us all move towards the drinks.
“Of course you can,” says the Colonel, handing him the microphone.
“What about our source?” he demands.
Change may be afoot in Sarkozy’s France, but here in the Midi it’s all about water, war and wine.
Tagged in: french lifestyle, french living, Helena Frith Powell