12 May 2012

France has spoken. Change is now!

Symbolic red roses
It's been a nail-biting two weeks here in France, but at last, my friends, colleagues and I can breathe a collective sigh of relief. François Hollande has defeated Nicolas Sarkozy 51.62% to 48.38% in the runoff election and will become the first Socialist president since François Mitterrand in 1995. 
Among friends May 6th, we sat on the edge of our seats, anxiously counting down the minutes until 8pm, and when the photograph of Hollande filled the screen of our television, we lept to our feet screaming in joy, and wasted no time popping the cork on several bottles of champagne. Sam lifted me up in his arms and whirled me around in a circle before placing me on the ground and whispering “This is good news for you... for us.” I could have cried tears of joy. He was right, I can feel it is the dawn of a new France.
A triumph for multiculturalism in France
After a round of celebratory drinks and bises, we took to the streets, a homemade banner and several bottles in hand. A very elated, multicultural crowd had gravitated to the main square, Place du Capitole, in front of the city hall to celebrate. Sam and I took off running, jumped up on a ledge of the majestic brick building, and unfurled our banner to be met by cheers and camera flashes. We later befriended two lovely Muslim ladies, who although born in France, confessed to being treated like second-class citizens. They complimented our banner, and we shared our mutual hopes that this president would embrace cultural diversity and women's rights.
The air was filled with blaring car horns, cheers, singing, and noise makers. It was the sound of hope restored.
Sam and I with our banner... We had a little help from Obama...
 Visually, Place du Capitole was a sea of blue, white and red flags, pro-Hollande posters, and of course, hand-held smart phones to document the historic event. For me, the most stunning visual element of the evening was the fresh red roses being waved in the air and carried through the streets. Not only is red the color of the Socialist party, but Toulouse is famously referred to as la Ville Rose. I found this beautifully symbolic. Although the red roses were used to celebrate the victory all over France, Toulouse is the only city able to claim this special double meaning. I felt so very privileged to be celebrating this event in Toulouse, la Ville Rose... And could not prevent myself from belting out Edith Piaf’s “la Vie en Rose” as we walked through town, a newfound spring in our step.
It seems as if everyone I knew was celebrating at Place du Capitole; my law students, my colleagues and several friends.
Of course, Sarkozy’s supporters tried to stir things up, driving by hurling insults at the crowd, waving French flags (and middle fingers), but for the most part, things remained calm.
As Hollande addressed the country after his victory, he acknowledged the 17 year gap since the last left-wing president. 
 "Many people have been waiting for this moment for many long years. Others, younger, have never known such a time. ... I am proud to be capable to bring about hope again. I know what many people feel -- years and years of wounds, of ruptures, and we have to repair, recover, unite. That is what we're going to do together.”
The day after the election, world markets plunged, and eurozone debt fears have been reawakened around the globe. The media is speculating that the election of Hollande is a catastrophe for the debt crisis. I remain optimistic about Hollande’s plans to focus on growing the economy rather than Sarkozy’s austerity policy. I think much remains to be seen and that we should give the president-elect his chance.

I am absolutely overflowing with pride for my adopted country. This is fantastic news for me, as an immigrant in France. Possibly next year, I will have the right to vote in municipal elections. And who knows, in five years time, perhaps I will be voting in the next presidential election, as a French citizen! My life in France has taught me that all is possible, and now that there is a president who will look out for my interests, I am all the more optimistic that the dream will continue.
Vive la France. Le changement, c’est maintenant!

03 May 2012

French Election Anxiety: Flipping off Sarkozy

It’s hard to believe that in three days, France will have elected its next President.

Nearly two weeks ago, I watched anxiously as the candidates were narrowed down from 10 to 2 in the first round of elections. Sitting on the couch among French friends, chills of anticipation rushing down my spine, I realized that I was as excited about the results as they were. I have been carefully following this election, listening to each candidate, and have come to realize that I am probably more excited about the French elections that the American ones… I suppose it’s normal, considering where I call home now. As the two finalists were announced, we all groaned in despair. We hoped to see right-leaning incumbent president Sarkozy eliminated in the first round, but alas, he took a close second to Socialist candidate François Hollande. We exchanged nervous glances. This is going to be a close one. How ever were we going to survive two agonizing weeks before the second election?

A few days ago, relaxing on the couch watching the news with Sam, my French boyfriend, we learned that President Sarkozy himself would be holding a rally in Toulouse that afternoon. Sam glanced at me and said, “We’re going.”

Already aware of his less than favorable views on Sarko, I looked at him as if he was joking.

He wasn’t.

The next thing I knew, we were crammed among thousands of Sarkozy supporters brandishing French flags and posters with the slogan “La France Forte” (A strong France.) On my tiptoes, I managed to steal a few glimpses of the president… Briefly his arm, a bit of his face, and then a full view of his stunning singer wife, Carla Bruni.

Several of my law students were present, some wearing Sarkozy stickers and distributing literature. They smiled excitedly when they saw me… I averted my eyes. I did not want to be associated with this man.

The atmosphere was tense. I have never been to an American Tea Party rally, but this is probably the closest thing to it. Sarkozy, in top form as a dramatic orator, cultivated an ambiance of fear and mistrust, proclaiming that France would become the next Greece should his opponent Hollande be elected. He then moved on to the subject of strengthening French borders and removing France’s participation in the Schengen Agreement.

From there, playing on the emotions of an eager crowd, he went on to discuss his plan to reduce the number of immigrants in France by half in his next term, to prevent immigrants from entering French territory without speaking fluent French first, and to protect the rich history of France. He went on to extol the virtues of French cuisine, history, language, arts, culture and of course, the Christian faith (odd to mention religion in a supposedly secular country.) He went on to explain how immigrants were threatening these core values, and that they were failing to integrate properly into the French way of life.

The crowd, pushing and shoving, a literal sweat box, jeered at the mention of immigrants in France. A man next to me proclaimed loudly “ François Hollande, president des immigrés!” (the immigrants’ president.) Every now and then someone fainted from the suffocating heat, and had to be carried out. Every time that happened, the spectators inched forward to take that person’s place. The tirade against immigration continued. He did not even try to mask his disdain for North African Muslims. I was simply appalled by practically everything that came out of his mouth, and even more by the exultant reaction of his supporters, who hung on his every bigoted word.

I dared not speak out loud, for fear that my foreign accent would provoke a mob-like reaction. I glanced at Sam, whose mouth was tightly clenched, eyes blazing with rage. It was all he could do to keep himself under control.

Tears brimmed in my eyes despite myself. The crowd was chanting anti-immigrant slurs, and Sarkozy seemed to be feeding off their energy, his voice soaring above the cheers. I looked around at the people in the crowd, trying to understand why they hated me so much, just because I was foreign. It was impossible not to take it personally.

The crowd occasionally erupted into orgasmic applause, frantically waving their flags. I stared at the tricolor flag I have come to know and love as much as my own stars and stripes, and suddenly, I didn’t recognize it.

“I know it’s difficult for you to be here, but you need to see that there is not just one France. There are two.” Sam whispered in my ear.

Indeed, this is nothing new. I have always believed in two radically different Americas, both considering themselves patriotic. I suppose it should be no different in France.

As the speech came to a conclusion, the crowd began to wave their flags and sing an impassioned version of  “La Marseillaise.”

One of my most cherished dreams is to sing the French national anthem after receiving my own flag at a French citizenship ceremony.  Becoming French… Just the thought brings me shivers of joy. That’s why it killed me so much to see the flag and national hymn hijacked in a way, and used as instruments of discrimination and hate. This is the atmosphere I would have imagined in France in the 1930s, not in 2012!

We trudged out of the arena, a bit deflated by the whole ordeal, when we were stopped by security forces. We were behind a barricade, and were told we would have to wait until Monsieur le President had left the venue before we could walk home.

After nearly an hour under the intense Toulouse sun, biting our tongues amid the pro-Sarko chatter, a heavily escorted black vehicle passed by. In the back seat were the president and his celebrity wife, waving to the people behind the barricade, probably three meters away from us, close enough to make eye contact. I noticed a brief interruption in his plastered-on politician’s smile, and noticed a hint of confusion on his face.

I turned to Sam just in time to see his defiant middle finger displayed in all its glory before the horrified face of the President of France. A few second later, the car had continued on, but there is no way the gesture went unnoticed.

After the barricades were removed, we chuckled the whole way home over Sam’s candid message to the president, but inside, our stomachs were churning with uncertainty. The idea of five more years of Sarkozy frightens me very much, as an immigrant, as a resident of France.

Last night’s televised debate between Sarkozy and Hollande was riveting. All I can do is wait and hope that the people with the right to vote will choose Hollande, which would make my life a lot easier.

Hollande will be speaking in Toulouse this evening. His posters and stage are already set up. “Le changement. C’est maintenant,” a party slogan reminiscent of Obama’s Change mantra during the 2008 campaign has me filled with hope. However, after seeing how Sarkozy excels at public speaking and mobilizing large numbers of supporters, I am unable to predict a winner.

It will be a close election, and, not having the right to vote in France, I feel powerless… I hope one day to have this privilege.

The longer I live here, the more French I become, the more I crave involvement in the country I have chosen out of pure love.

I hope Hollande is right.

Change is now.

 We managed to inch our way into this doorway, but never made it inside.

 The crowd listening outside the arena.

 Sarkozy's right-leaning slogan "la France Forte" 

 I managed to get this shot of Carla Bruni, but but unfortunately my shot of Sarko was blurry.

 The President's car leaving the venue.

 Sarko's right hand waves as his car pulls away...
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