Halley Knigge (Griffin)

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As cool as it is just to be living in France in the midst of the 2007 presidential campaigns, it’s even cooler to be living and attending school in the political center of the country.

Every week the Sciences Po newsletter informs us of more opportunities to immerse ourselves in French politics – and because we happen to be studying in the right city, some of those opportunities are really really cool. This weekend for example, Cité de la Reussite hosted a series of debates with themes pertaining to the upcoming elections and the current political scene in France.

The cool part was that one debate featured Nicholas Sarkozy and the other featured Ségolène Royal. And, thanks to my Sciences Po connections, I managed to score a ticket to the Ségolène debate this morning. I would have been really interested to attend the debate with Nicholas “George W. of France” Sarkozy too, but there were only 300 places available at each one and billets were disappearing with record speed.

The debate was held in the grand ampitheatre of la Sorbonne, and as I walked up to the building I passed through some really diverse crowds of people. There were scruffy-looking young people (who would have fit in easily at UW) passing out pamphlets in favor of Ségolène, FBI-style security guards at the doors and groups of political folk in suits standing around in small clusters. As I don’t have a printer, I couldn’t produce a paper copy of my e-ticket, so I just brought my computer with me and showed it to the security guards. The guy who checked mine apparently thought that was cute, because he winked at me and told me I was very organized. Yeah, I don’t know.

I got to the debate pretty early so I was able to score a prime seat, but even so, there wouldn’t have been a bad one. The grand ampitheatre is still small enough that a seat at the way back would have provided a fine view of the people on stage. The way the debate was set up was more of a question and answer session. Ségolène had a seat on stage and there was a host sitting with her who asked the bulk of the questions. There were also 5 young people representing different arondissements and suburbs perched on stools on each side of the two chairs who had prepared questions to ask about different policy issues.

The really cool thing is that they also took questions from the audience. I obviously was not about to stand up in front of the France 2 camera crews and ask a question in my accented French, but the point is that I could have. That’s what I mean about opportunities here. The fact that if I felt like it, I could find an occasion for a little tête-à-tête with the possible next president of France.

Sitting in the ampitheatre it became really clear how much the people love Ségolène Royal. And I can definitely see why. She’s poised and pretty with the kind of presence that invokes a great deal of confidence from the French people (and the American exchange students…) When the event’s host first walked onstage to introduce her, the cheering and applause at the mention of her name silenced him for several minutes. He finally managed to regain the crowd’s attention by reminding us that if we shut up and let him finish, we’d actually get to see her. Sitting 15 metres from Ségolène Royal and getting to hear her speak was way cooler then seeing Lindsay Lohan would have been (who is the current object of R and my pathetic celebrity-stalking attempts).

For the most part, everything she said was appreciated by the audience. She’s really been working hard to present herself as a candidate of the people, and took pains to make points like “Moi, je n’ai pas peur du peuple. Au contraire, je les respecte.” (Me, I’m not afraid of the people – on the contrary, I respect them.) The one thing the audience didn’t like was her answer to the final question – how to deal with the violence and riots in the banlieue.

She gave an admirable but idealistic response about finding ways to show the underpriviledged youth from impoverished suburbs that they can succeed and become l’avenir (the future) de la France. When she stopped without outlining any specific solutions, the audience actually began yelling. The young guy next to me was bouncing around like he was about to run up onstage, yelling “Mais quelles mésures? Quelles mésures?”

This topic is particularly poignant because next Friday is the first anniversary of the electrocution deaths of the two young guys from the banlieue, supposedly killed while running from the police – the event that kicked off the riots and car-burnings of last November. Actually, the past couple weeks have seen several foreboding incidents in the suburbs of Epinay-sur-Seine and Clichy-Sous-Bois. Riots, vandalism, attacks on police officers all seem to be leading up to some kind of climax that may be reminiscent of last year’s destruction. According to a few papers, there have been rumblings in some suburbs of how best to “celebrate” the anniversary. Once again, I wish wish wish that I had my camera.

After the debate, I spent a few hours wandering around the Louvre, then window shopping along rue St. Honoré – host to the flagship Chanel store and Coco Chanel’s apartment, located right above the store. Place du Palais Royal is always fun on sunny days (and some not-so-sunny ones too) because the inline skaters come out to play. Today there was a guy skating around like an Olympic ice skater, doing leaps and spins and axel-type jumps. Half an hour disappeared before I even realized that he’d hypnotized me.

I also went to see “The Queen” with Helen Mirren, because it’s been getting rave reviews from the French press. I was hesitant to see it at first because it seemed so tactless coming out not quite a decade after Princess Diana’s death. The movie itself was actually really really good, but I felt uncomfortable watching it. It’s a movie that would probably have been even better given another 10 years of distance. It was just hard to separate the movie from reality – seeing Helen Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth II onscreen and thinking about the fact that the actual queen is probably chilling in a palace just across the English Channel from me right now. The timing just isn’t right, and it makes the movie kind of awkward. Good, but awkward.

••• So a friend of Cassie’s saw Dustin Hoffman shopping about three blocks from my building, and Lindsay Lohan is supposedly also trotting around Paris right now – all these famous people are supposedly orbiting right around my neighborhood and I have yet to see any. I am the worst stalker of all time. R and I couldn’t even muster up the balls to stroll into the lobby of the George V hotel and peek around – we were too scared. (The George V, along with the Ritz in Place Vendôme, is where anyone who is anyone rich or important stays when visiting Paris).

•••• Funny Georges story numero deux: The other night I was reading books to Georges and he somehow found this incredibly dry book called “Herbs for Cooking and Health.” He plopped it down on my lap and refused to let me read anything else. The weird part is that we made it through 20 pages of “frequent picking will allow your basil to flourish…” before he got distracted, and we could probably have made it through 20 more if it hadn’t been time for dinner.

Author: Halley (Griffin) Knigge

Storyteller and adventurer with a focus on new and social media. Ten years of award-winning writing and editing experience, eight years working professionally to share compelling stories through brand journalism, three years as an airline spokesperson, two years as a Tacoma Arts Commissioner and 30+ years of learning something new every day.

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