Halley Knigge (Griffin)

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Sarko, facho, le peuple aura ta peau! Sarko, facho, le people aura ta peau! Sarko, facho, le peuple aura ta peau!

(Sarko, fascist, the people will have your skin!)

Protestors in front of the July column.

On May 17th Nicolas Sarkozy’s five-year term as the president of the Republic will begin – and nearly half the population is not at all happy about it. Anarchists have taken over place de la Bastille. People are threatening to leave France. Effigies of Sarkozy are being burned in the streets. The other half though, is quite thrilled. People are dancing and celebrating on the Champs Elysées and at place de la Concorde, wearing UMP shirts and toasting Sarkozy.

According to my vie politique teacher, when there’s a substantial victory for the right-wing the celebration goes down at place (pronounced plah-suh) de la Concorde – which is exactly what’s happening right now. If I didn’t have a dissertation due by 8h tomorrow morning I’d be out there myself taking more pictures. As for the left, celebrations tend to take place at place de la Bastille. In 2002 when the extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen made it onto the second round, people wandered purposelessly to the Bastille – with no plan or idea of what to do except to gather there in protest and solidarity. The place de la Bastille has been a gathering place for manifestations and revolutions since the actual prison was stormed in 1789, so it follows that it would be a hub of leftist political activity.

Although leftist candidate Ségolène Royal had been holding her own throughout the election, Sarkozy has been the favorite from the beginning and Rachael and I have been predicting a UMP victory for weeks. Since the first round of elections two weeks ago there have been rumblings about the possibility of violent protests if Sarkozy were to be elected – especially in the infamous Parisian banlieue Clichy-sous-Bois. Figuring that manifestations would be far more interesting to watch than right-wing celebrations, we decided to hoof it over to Bastille to see the results.

Walking toward Bastille it was impossible not to notice the buses filled with French riot police lining the main roads that radiate out from the circular place and the TV vans and journalists wandering all around – clearly we weren’t the only ones expecting something interesting to go down tonight.

We were momentarily distracted from the riots by the extremely cute French riot police.

At 19h20 we squeezed onto barstools in Kilty’s Irish Pub where rue de la Roquette joins the chaotic traffic circle at Bastille and turned our eyes to the TV in the corner of the bar to watch the countdown. At T-10 minutes the streets started to empty as people squeezed into any bar or restaurant with a TV. The channel in Kilty’s was a little slower than the one on in the bar next door and at 20h we started to hear screaming without any clue who the screaming was for. A few frantic people bolted next door, but after about 30 seconds our TV caught up and we knew that Sarkozy had won.

We could hear screams of anger coming from all directions but for about 20 minutes after the results were announced, nothing happened. People began slowly filing out of the bars and gathering on a patch of sidewalk usually reserved for the Saturday-night break dancers. As the crowd grew a few guys climbed to the top of phone booths and began chanting, Sarko, facho, le people aura ta peau.

The chanting crowd began to walk straight into the swirling traffic and groups of people sat down in the middle of the road, forcing all traffic to a halt. Immediately the riot police were on the job, blocking off all entrance points to Bastille and directing the cars and buses Southeast toward Gare de Lyon. The thing that’s important to remember about France is that manifestations (protests) are a fundamental right. The police are bussed in with shin guards and riot shields and seem to function more as protectors of the protesters than as keepers of the peace. This is perhaps why nobody did anything when protesters began to graffiti the column.

Once the first two men had breached the spiked fence surrounding the monument, things just continued on toward anarchy. A Sarkozy mannequin appeared in the crowd and he was first kicked and beaten on the ground before being burned in effigy and carried on a stick through the crowd. The column was soon covered in anti-Sarko graffiti likening him to Le Pen and Hitler and piles of trash were burning as miniature bonfires throughout the crowds.

That flaming pile of clothing is actually an effigy of Sarko – complete with face and hair.

When I climbed onto the fence surrounding the column in the center to get a few pictures of the flare-wielding group that had made it onto the first level of the monument I came face-to-face with a girl about my age who was a member of an anarchist group. She asked me if I understood what was going on, and I mostly did, but I did need to ask what people were chanting after “Sarko, facho.” She asked who I would have voted for and I assured her that I was forcement against Sarko – though it was kind of a useless question to ask in the middle of a mob screaming about skinning the poor guy alive. Even if I’d been the biggest Sarkozy fan ever to come out of Sciences Po, there is no chance I’d ever admit that to a pro-Ségo anarchist. She told me it was chouette (kind, neat, cool) that I’d come out to manifest with them – and again, it would have been suicidal to admit that I was just there for a little entertainment and a few good pictures.

After observing the scene for a while together from our perch on the fence, I bid her a bonne soirée and made my way toward the metro – I do have homework to finish after all. As I left the fray things were nowhere near winding down – with drum circles, trash-fueled bonfires and no traffic to bother with whatsoever it was starting to look like quite a party.

Nobody stopped these guys from defacing the monument to the République at place de la Bastille with spray paint.

The big question is why protest something you can’t change? And certainly, even anarchists understand that no amount of manifestation can undo the democratic process of electing a new president. They know they can’t change anything, but want Sarkozy to hear their message – that he and his alienating policies are not wanted or welcome by a large chunk of the population. I get that, I totally do – they’re sending a message. But I think it’s a message that could be sent just as easily without clobbering and burning inanimate Sarkozy look-alikes or threatening that people will skin him alive. Even the riot police were chuckling when the protesters started comparing Sarokozy to Adolf Hitler (for one thing, his family is Jewish) – this was manifestation to the point of just looking ridiculous.

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Being at Sciences Po between the two rounds of the French presidential election is like being thrust into a hub of political hyperactivity. The dueling Sarko and Ségo camps have hung up jeunes pour Ségolène Royal/Nicolas Sarkozy flags in penîche (main hall) and spend every free moment trying to turn another young French voter and professors have cancelled classes to go off and debate or campaign for their preferred candidates.

Actually, the mood has been electric since mid-February, when François Bayrou crept up from behind to challenge to two main contenders for the Élysée (the Palais de l’Élysée is the presidential residence – basically the French White House) and turned the fairly predictable election into something much more interesting.

The way the French présidentielle works is by a run-off system. Each political party has the option to present a candidate who must gather 500 signatures from elected officials in at least 30 French departments (regions). The only other requirements to be a candidate are to be of French nationality and be at least 23 years old. After the official candidate list is announced, the candidates enter an official campaign period, the rules of which are strictly enforced – each candidate must be allotted the exact same amount of television time, whether through commercials, interviews or debates. The day before the elections campaigning is forbidden – no speeches, appearances or ads are allowed in order to give voters a “day of reflection.” Citizens vote on all candidates in the prémier tour of elections (which took place here on Sunday, April 22nd). If no candidate receives an absolute majority, there’s a run-off election between the top two two weeks later.

This year 12 offical candidates were announced, the favorites of which have long been Ségolène Royal from the Socialist Party and Nicolas Sarkozy of Jacques Chirac’s party the UMP. A run-off between Ségo and Sarko as they’re popularly called, has long been the expectation, but the emergence of the centrist candidate François Bayrou in the polls in February and March threw a serious wrench into the predictability of the election. As the first voting round drew closer, France was mainly concerned with four candidates – Ségo, Sarko, Bayrou and Jean-Marie Le Pen, a racist, fascist, holocaust-denying, extreme right-wing candidate with one eye, who shocked the country and the international scene when he made it into the second round of voting in the 2002 présidentielle. As extreme and offensive as Le Pen may be, he consistently manages to garner a hefty percentage of votes. Last Sunday he received around 11 percent of votes, compared to the inoffensive Green Party candidate’s 1.5 percent.

Polling stations opened at 8 am Sunday morning and officially closed at 6 pm. Unlike the U.S. elections, where voters watch the slow roll of blue or red across the country as polling stations close in each state and see the votes mounting up as they’re counted, the estimated results are not allowed to be announced until 8 pm the night of the first round. At 7:50 Sunday evening, Rachael, our friend Tom and I arrived at a friend’s parents’ Moroccan restaurant, which had opened early for the election results. Faris (the Moroccan friend) and a few other people had set up a projector and speakers so the news was playing 10 feet tall against the wall of the restaurant when we arrived.

The scene reminded me of New Year’s eve, with a countdown clock ticking away the seconds in the corner of the screen, and the camera views alternating between the different candidate’s headquarters. When the clock reached 7:59:30, a collective “SHHHH” rolled around the restaurant and everyone began counting down with the ticker, clutching wine or beer in one hand and frantically silencing cell phones with the other. At precisely 8:00:00, the screen was filled with two headshots – those of Ségo and Sarko before switching once more to the headquarters of each candidate. The whole scene was almost ridiculously theatrical – from the countdown to the winners’ pictures to the photo montages set to inspirational music that played homage to each candidate. I was reminded more of the Academy Awards or New Year’s with Dick Clark more than a serious political event – but I guess the French are used to doing it with flair.

The restaurant where we were was smack in the middle of the 11ème arrondissment, not too far from place de la Bastille – an area that is distinctly left-wing. When Ségo’s picture flashed on the screen the restaurant erupted in cheers – which shortly turned into boos and irritated Sarko insults when the percentages of votes tipped less and less in her favor. Over in the 2ème arrondissement, on the other hand, Sarko’s advance is being celebrated. As I find myself surrounded by some of the most politically aware kids I’ve ever met, I didn’t bat an eyelid when Paul (7) told me that he was “so happy” that Sarko made it, and was only mildly surprised when Ella (10) went off into a tirade about how “everyone wants Ségolène because they think she’ll give money to poor people, but really she’ll make everything more expensive for every one else with too many taxes!” Even 2-year old Georges knows, in direct accordance with the politics of his parents, that “Ségolène bad.”

While I’m sure 99 percent of what I hear from the kids is regurgitated straight back from their parents, it still amuses me to no end when Paul tells me he can’t wait for May 6th to find out who will win. Though Sarkozy came out of the first round with 31.18 percent and a clear lead over Royal’s 25.87 percent (numbers that three of my four nannying charges had memorized to the 100th), nobody knows where Bayrou’s 18 percent will go. At the moment, he’s endorsing neither candidate, and has instead declared that he’ll be founding a new political party – the Parti démocrate. The rest of the votes are easy to assign – Le Pen’s extremist votes will most likely go to the immigration-unfriendly Sarkozy, while most of the little leftist parties will be casting their votes for Ségolène. It’s the middle 18 percent that has everybody aflutter – and while my personal prediction is Sarkozy in the Élysée, we won’t know for sure until next weekend.

Meanwhile, Paul and I are counting down the days.