We didn’t talk much politics here before Jean-Marie Le Pen’s victory. Afterward, we could tell who voted for him: those who didn’t want to talk. Our local butcher tried to satisfy my curiosity, but he only got as far as explaining that in America, he would vote Republican. Then another customer entered and he went silent, and now he gives me nervous looks when I stop in for my evening chops. Suddenly politics and meat are intertwined.
Sunday, Election Day in France, was like any other Sunday for us. We strolled to the outdoor market. Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians- Les Arabes to the French-work all the stalls, calling out prices behind piles of zucchini, melons, strawberries, a profusion of produce. These are the newcomers-not us-that Mr. Le Pen and his supporters would like to chuff off, even if their French is better than ours and their role in society as purveyors of food more integral.
The mania for anti–Le Pen manifestations , or street marches was nearly over by Sunday, though “FUCK LE PEN”-in English-was still graffiti’d on the Bastille memorial, just below the graceful, gold-winged statue of Mercury.
Paris feels to us like a socialist paradise with its cheap medicine and cheap, good wine and low rents, but Parisians look scraggly and tired. It’s partly à la mode . Men under 50 affect an unwashed, hairy look-a middle-aged intellectual alighting from a Vespa who believes his long, wind-blown locks are sexy, could be the national image. After 50, the men may begin to resemble Milosevic, foreheads lurching at chins. The women too, despite the cliché of French chic, look more weary than soignée these days. It’s the pack-a-day smoking, but also the cheap shoes.
They don’t have the disposable income we do; an economic ranking recently put them at 25th. Subway cars are plastered with advertisements for a school that teaches “Wall Street English.” A man in a double-breasted suit bares white teeth, on his way to unimaginable riches thanks to his new facility with the language of business.
We never get past the McDonald’s next to the market without our toddler calling for a burger and fries. My husband loathes the visits (self-hating Americans here regard Mickey D’s as the very incarnation of national embarrassment, right up there with W.’s mug). But sometimes I can’t deny the tyke an opportunity to get in touch with his roots.
A plastic toy accompanies the Happy Meal. This season’s trinkets are intricate replicas of the creatures in Monsters, Inc. , now showing on screens here as Monstres et Cie . While our little darling and his French peers push their toys around on the Formica, we try to guess in what country corporate slaves are at that moment producing these critters for our national eatery.
Mickey D’s is an American outpost here, but there are also the posters of De Niro and Eddie Murphy on every bus stop, and everywhere cheesy American pop tunes of the 70′s and 80′s-but what do they mean to the French, who don’t even have their Wall Street English down?
Edmund Burke, attacking the French Revolution, accused the French of being people who can only express themselves in extremes. Perhaps Mr. Le Pen and all the votes for left-wing fringe candidates bear this out. But the French aren’t expressing themselves much in other ways. Parents here complain about the unforgiving rote-teaching method, and say that science and technology have been erasing art and culture as the “cool” things for children to learn in public schools. This is a country that so reveres art that every other street is named after an artist or scribbler, but besides Amélie , most of us can’t name a French cultural product that has crossed the water in the past decade or two.
At the market, the Arabs call out their prices in euros, but they still post prices in francs-even though francs haven’t been in circulation for months. Mr. Le Pen’s talk of going back to the franc sounds ridiculous. But the French still haven’t got their heads around the new money. Watching men and women in the boulangerie struggling to count their euro change nearly five months after the switch while Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” catches my ear, I recognize that something is in the process of disappearing, and it’s not just the franc.