TWO YEARS ago we were in the throes of a presidential election. As usual the first round of voting weeded out the mavericks and the no-hopers, and the second and deciding round showed a close-run contest between the mini-messianic but woolly-minde
TWO YEARS ago we were in the throes of a presidential election. As usual the first round of voting weeded out the mavericks and the no-hopers, and the second and deciding round showed a close-run contest between the mini-messianic but woolly-minded candidate from the left, the willowy Ségolène Royal, and the pragmatic and tireless eager beaver from the centre right, Nicolas Sarkozy, who won the contest by some five percentage points. Not a huge majority. Sarkozy is familiarly known as Sarko, a diminutive that may imply a certain level of wary affection as well as referring to his not being the tallest man you ever saw.
(Campbell's Diary Guide to Correct Pronunciation: the accent falls on the first syllable, thus SARkozy and not SarKOzy or SarkoZY.)
Ségolène Royale took defeat hard, swore she would be back next time in 2012, and looked about her to see how she could best stay in the public eye. Her political power base doesn't carry much weight: she's president of the Poitou-Charentes Regional Council, an area of Atlantic France with no major city as a regional focus. I don't think I was alone in finding it difficult to work out exactly what she stood for, apart from a bitter anti-Sarkoism. Last year the leadership of the increasingly fragmented Socialist Party came up for grabs on the resignation of the previous general secretary, François Hollande, who also happens to be Ségolène Royal's estranged partner and father of their four children. She was beaten to it by Martine Aubry, maire of Lille and daughter of Jacques Delors, the famous president of the European Commission who gave rise to the famous xenophobic 80s headline in The Sun 'Up yours, Delors!' (It's all about clans, French politics.)
Ségolène Royal lost by not much more than 100 votes, a result so close that there was immediate and savage contestation with the usual accusations of fraud and sharp practice. An electoral commission upheld the result, and Ségolène Royal was out in the cold without any particular role to play.
Since then she has taken on a strange mantle, that of self-ordained priestess of the nation's conscience, a sort of living, breathing Marianne. ('Marianne' is the personification of republican France, in the same vein as Britannia stands for Britain. The Statue of Liberty, a present to the United States from France to mark the 1889 centenary of the French Revolution, is in fact a representation of Marianne. I doubt if it was this connection alone that drove Ségolène Royale to attend Barack Obama's inauguration, uninvited by the White House, and to make sure her presence in Washington was reported in the French media.)
Now she has taken to publicly apologizing for Sarkozy's actions, and this has led into strange waters. She apologized to disaffected workers in Martinique, a French overseas territory, for the Paris government's handling of their grievances. She apologized to the people of Senegal, a former French colony in West Africa, for certain remarks Sarkozy made about easing their difficulties in unshackling themselves from the past and taking their due place in the modern world. To underline her essential affinity with the people of Senegal on this occasion, she put on pale blue national costume.
Then there was the Zapatero affair. José-Luiz Zapatero is the socialist prime minister of Spain. Rumour went round France that Sarkozy, in the course of a private conversation, had said Zapatero was thick. As reported by a socialist MP who was present, someone else said this, whereupon Sarkozy said but... least he won an election. Hot gossip. So Ségolène Royal went off to see Zapatero to apologize for Sarkozy's insult.
Easily the least important but perhaps the most entertaining upshot of all this political tittle-tattle this is the appearance of a website called Segopardon (http://twitter.com/segopardon). Here we have a cocktail of apologies which anyone can submit in the name of Ségolène Royal, and clearly the chalice of French political satire is brimming over. Although most are in-house political, some 'apologies' reach out into the enjoyably surreal:
I wish to apologize to the people of England for the great age of Queen Elizabeth.
I wish to apologize to the inhabitants of the South West. It is the only part of France where it will rain tomorrow. This is shameful.
I wish to apologize for the Middle Ages, a most unpleasant period.
I am so sorry that spring is late.
While I am at it, apologies for 2007.
I wish to excuse Jacques Tati [legendary French film actor playing M.Hulot, etc] for smoking. Smoking kills.
I am sorry not to have apologized for anything for the last two hours. This is not good enough, I am flagellating myself.
Don’t hesitate to contribute if you feel like it, even in English. I myself propose to invoke Segopardon to apologize to everyone that Brit expats can no longer sustain the French economy as they did in the palmy days when you could get 1.48 euros to the pound sterling. And while I'm at it, I have to apologize for socks having lost their become political innocence. Yes, socks . . .
* * *
. . . we've had another wonderful political brouhaha in Perpignan, metropolitan France's most southerly city, practically on the Spanish border and not so very far from where we live. There were local elections about a year ago, in which the defending centre right maire was strongly challenged by the socialist opposition, and on election night it looked as though the television screens were going flash up the equivalent of LAB GAIN. Against the run of predictions and exit polls, the flash result read CON HOLD (the French equivalent, you understand: con is a very rude word in French). Everyone was very surprised: by the shortest of heads the defending maire had slipped back in for the next seven years.
It was then that some socialist supporters remembered that at the count at one of the Perpignan polling stations there was an election official who had unexplained bulges in his pockets and socks. The bulges were discovered to be wads of voting slips, all in the right-wing interest, ready to be slipped unobtrusively from socks and pockets into the heaps of legitimate slips waiting to be counted. Nobody knew how many votes had already been infiltrated. The official was not unconnected with the outgoing and now incoming maire, and the opposition cried foul.
The case eventually went for trial in Montpellier, where the plaintiffs' cause was supported by busloads of Perpignan socialists outside and, for all I know, inside the court, all waving socks, a field day for local and national television.
Recently the court pronounced: the complaint was upheld, the returning maire was exonerated from any complicity, and a re-election was ordered. I don't think the verdict included anything about officials being banned from wearing socks at the poll. If it had, I'm sure we could expect an apology on Segopardon to clothing industry operatives for this slight on sock production.
And of course if you find all this too long, too short, too just right, too boring, too interesting, too highly-coloured, too bland (it's this article I'm speaking about, not French socks), then I apologize unreservedly. Clearly it's the fashionable thing to do, but please forgive me if I don't put on pale blue national costume or take my socks off while I eat humble pie.