Politics make a convivial topic at the French dinner table
Paris Letter: Presidential election chat reveals the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie
François Fillon, the defeated Les Républicains candidate in the French presidential election, whose campaign was beset by financial scandals. “Venial sins,” says a supporter. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters
Danielle, a bubbly Frenchwoman in her 60s, wouldn’t dream of allowing politics to spoil a convivial evening.
Au contraire, the defeat of the conservative candidate François Fillon, once a friend but now demoted to the status of an acquaintance, and the looming run-off in the French presidential election, make for animated conversation over dinner in the apartment Danielle shares with her husband, also called François.
The couple have a lot in common with the Fillons. François, a retired executive from one of France’s largest companies, wears the red ribbon of the Legion of Honour in his lapel, and is a country notable in western France, which they consider home.
Nobody ever talks about Macron’s programme. All they talk about is his wife
Les Républicains just lost what was supposed to be an unloseable election. Disappointed as they were by Fillon’s financial scandals, Danielle, François and most of their friends nonetheless voted for Fillon’s programme, for his plans to abolish the wealth tax and purge France’s bloated civil service. “All politicans are corrupt,” François shrugs. “I don’t defend him, but they were venial, not mortal sins.”
Danielle leaves the maid in the kitchen and dons an apron to serve the first course of big, juicy asparagus. Like everything on the table, the asparagus came from the country. “I hear Brigitte Macron serves at table,” Danielle jokes, referring to the wife of the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron. “I wish I had her legs!”
“I know a lot of people who won’t vote for Macron because of Brigitte,” says Elisabeth, a bridge champion.
“Well, I can’t wait to see a grandmother in the Élysée,” Danielle pipes back. Brigitte Macron, who at age 64 is nearly 25 years her husband’s senior, has seven grandchildren.
“Nobody ever talks about Macron’s programme. All they talk about is his wife,” says Victoire, the 17-year-old granddaughter who has inherited Danielle’s mischievous vitality.
Victoire complains about the starisation of French politics, and the double standard that obsesses over the wife’s age, not the husband’s. If she weren’t too young to vote, Victoire, like the rest of the dinner guests, would reluctantly cast a ballot for Macron in the May 7th run-off.
The leaders of Les Républicains, Fillon, Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, have called on LR voters to support Macron, to defeat the far right candidate Marine Le Pen. The dinner party guests don’t understand why some LR voters, mostly fundamentalist Catholics, are moving to Le Pen.
“My friend Dorothée filched a pile of Fillon ballots on April 23rd,” Elisabeth says. “She swears she’s going to stuff them in the ballot box on May 7th.” Everyone laughs at the absurdity of it.
“In the cafe this morning, the owner told me his clients know Macron is going to win, so they’ll vote for Le Pen, just to keep Macron’s score down,” Danielle says. “It’s a dangerous game.”
“I can’t stand Le Pen’s lurid populism,” says François, pouring the wine. “She’d cut us off from Europe. If she won, I’d be tempted to leave the country. Mathematically, I can’t see how she could do it.”
“I saw a poll showing Macron and Le Pen at 50/50 today,” says Jean-Claude, a retired media executive and the only socialist sympathiser. He believes Macron betrayed president François Hollande, but will nonetheless vote for him.
“Fake news!” says François. “They’re trying to scare people into voting for Macron.”
Fine oil paintings
The conversation shifts to the Victor Hugo play at the Comédie-Française . . . a theatrical production at the Cartoucherie that condemns Islamic State . . . the Rodin exhibition at the Grand Palais. The apartment is filled with orchids and fine oil paintings.
The mood is lighthearted. As we consume meat pie, salad, cheese, strawberries and a cake made by Benedictine monks near Poitiers, there is no sense that France is teetering on the brink of disaster.
Victoire asks if we heard about the mayor in northern France who threatened to resign when his constituents voted for Le Pen in the first round. “I don’t want to devote my life to connards [assholes],” Daniel Delomez, the mayor of Annezin, population 6,000, said. He later apologised for the obscenity, and decided to remain in office.
I think Hollande’s record won’t look so bad as time passes
François’s mood darkens. “When Giscard [d’Estaing] left office, the budget was nearly balanced,” he recalls. He runs through the last four decades of French politics: the corruption of the Mitterrand era, the lethargy of Chirac, Sarkozy’s rotten character, Hollande, as ineffectual as Chirac. “At least Chirac deliberately did nothing.”
“I think Hollande’s record won’t look so bad as time passes,” Jean-Claude says hopefully.
“Thirty years of errors,” François shakes his head. “We’re at the end of something; at the beginning of something else. But what?”