Monday, May 07, 2007

Election Night Tears in France

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

802 words.

A few hours after rightist candidate Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidential election here in France last Sunday, I got tear-gassed at the Bastille.

I was on my way to catch the metro, but this fog rose around me like a dream, the thin column with the gold figure on top disappearing in smoke, and the cops moving around beside it.

There were anti-Sarkozy shouts, the sound of glass breaking, then one canister hit almost at my feet and I was blinded, stumbling around with the other stumbling figures.

I'd open my eyes for a split second, run half a block with my eyes closed and arms outstretched, then force them open briefly again, and run more until I was far enough away to crouch and weep the gas out of my eyes.

Politics is like that, I think, a lot of stumbling forward with a few quick moments of excruciating clarity.

And after Sunday night you can see what's going to happen here in France, the same way any idiot could predict how Bush's War on Terror would destroy civil liberties at home, and his war in Iraq enflame the Middle East.

Here, Sarkozy's ham-handed economic programs will rip apart the social fabric. Like Bush, he is less a social conservative than radical reformist. In his victory speech, he vowed to "rehabilitate work, authority, morality, respect and merit."

In practice, he's going to hack away at job protection and health care to improve the economy, while trying to squelch dissent and deport illegal immigrants. Deep racial rifts will widen. And struggling working class people and small farmers will be pitted against the middle and upper classes as globalization hits home.

At a big pre-election rally a few weeks ago, he even promised to erase May '68, a phenomenon that began as student strikes for education reform and ended in a groundbreaking liberation movement that brought down the de Gaulle government and exploded an asphyxiating society. Ten million workers went on strike, and labor also saw huge gains.

While May '68 did leave behind mammoth and expensive social programs, and inflexible labor laws, what Sarkozy hates more than the economic legacy, is that of social justice and freedom.

Queers can forget about gay marriage. Despite his gestures towards affirmative action, people of color won't see a real fight against racism as long as what he's preaching is merit. And the immigrants, well...

In a preview of his new France, we've already seen sting operations at grade schools in which cops threaten to deport small children alone unless the whole family turn up ready to go.

Anybody not white is constantly in danger of being held if they don't have proper ID. One related episode of racial profiling set off a riot at the Gare du Nord. Ten thousand have already been deported, many of whom have lived their whole lives in France.

Sarkozy continually touts his background as the son of a Hungarian immigrant, but besides quick deportations, he has actually gone so far as to propose a Minister of Immigration and National Identity, to enforce assimilation.

In the weeks prior to the first round of the election, his campaign courted the extreme right supporters of Jean-Marie Le Pen. While maintaining a carefully deniable distance for the candidate, Sarkozy's right-hand man suggested that members of Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-queer National Front party might even be welcome in the Sarko government.

Sarkozy's promise to erase a whole era has an unsavory taste when you put it together with stings at grade schools and mass deportations. Most schools in Paris have a plaque in front commemorating the five or six or twenty Jewish kids sent to the camps.

If it hadn't been for Segolene's speech, I'd be weeping and writhing in pain, or maybe buying a ticket back home. After each of the two Bush elections, the opposition pretty much disappeared. Like Gore. Like Kerry.

The difference here, though, when I pry my eyes open, is Segolene Royal, who is refusing to retreat quietly. As a candidate, she persevered despite lackluster support of her decrepit Socialist Party.

Why should she disappear from politics now because she can't be president? She cares about the country. The key to her campaign was grassroots organizing, and internet activism, not the faltering party machine that never quite gave her its full support. Like the number of her supporters, you could see her grow with every stage of her campaign.

Sunday night, when she gave her final speech to an enormous cheering crowd, saying that the election wasn't an ending but a beginning, you actually believed her.

Like her, her supporters have promised to stick around. Already the following morning, I got emails echoing the words of her final speech, "It's not over." That's enough for hope.

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