Presidential

First presidential election I was aware of: 1995. France’s longest-running president, François Mitterand, is retiring. This is the time when I learn about the difference between right-wing and left-wing, about the environmentalist party (that was still a thing in France back then), and about the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man who became a big name in French politics by barking like a mad dog about how evil foreigners are and how we should re-establish the death penalty. We’ve just learned about the French Revolution in class, and I’m fascinated with politics. I put the ballot in the enveloppe myself. I’m ten years old, and a few weeks prior, after my teacher ripped off a page from my copybook for not having used the right layout, I’ve written ‘They cut off trees to make paper’ across the page before handing it to her, which left her speechless. I’m confident we’ll manage to change the world. After all, we already did, once.

Second-ever presidential election: I’m seventeen, six months shy of my majority. I can’t vote yet, but when they announce that Jean-Marie Le Pen has arrived second, and will run against Jacques Chirac for the title of president, I decide to do what I can. I go on marches and rallies against the National Front, in a purely symbolic attempt to remind everyone that most of our country is still not okay with voting for a neo-fascist. In my school, someone has printed out a picture of a mass grave in a Nazi concentration camp, plastered it to the school wall and scribbled ‘Do you really want to vote for the man who denied THIS?’ (among other things, Le Pen was a notorious Holocaust denier). In the end, Le Pen is soundly defeated, and everyone breathes out a sigh of relief.

The next elections are far less eventful. A new concept has been introduced: the ‘useful vote’. People are told that if they don’t vote for a candidate from one of the majority parties, they will scatter votes and somehow this will magically result in having a member of the Le Pen dynasty make the second round of the election again. At uni, I’m a member of the environmentalist student union. Other, bigger unions loathe us, not because they disagree with us, but because we ‘divide student votes’, according to them. They brilliantly exert democracy by ripping off our posters at election times and harassing us at meetings. Two more presidents are elected. They reach unheard-of levels of unpopularity. Everybody talks about the economic crisis, about insecurity, and later, terrorism. Of course there are still far fewer victims of terrorism and insecurity than, say, domestic violence or alcoholism (not to mention traffic accidents), but then have electoral debates ever been rational? Never mind, we vote. It’s still a democracy, or so we’re told. And there are still people who want to change the world.

2017. Emmanuel Macron, a centrist-liberal who wants to change absolutely nothing to the current economic system, is elected. Nobody knows why. Most of those who voted for him did so out of the conviction that they had to ‘vote usefully’, meaning that you have to vote for the person the polls tell you will be elected, or else you’re not on the winning team or something. Apparently someone changed the definition of ‘democracy’ while everybody was sleeping. Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie who proudly upholds the family tradition of raging fascism, gets one third of the votes. One third.

I still want to change the world, I really do. I teach my students about human rights and women’s rights and I teach them how to recognise plants on school trips so that hopefully they will learn what biodiversity means, I buy organic food, I mend my clothes, I take public transport all the time, I avoid taking planes, I’ve chosen to work part-time because I believe that excess individual wealth is a source of both social inequalities and environmental disaster, and it’s useless to have political principles if you don’t live by them yourself. I try to do my share. It’s tiny, but I’m doing what I can. I want to change the world. And I know I’m not the only one.

But for God’s sake, people. We need your help out here.

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We need to wake up.

You all know how it looks like for the world; here is what it looks like from the little spot where I’m currently sitting, sandwiched between a computer and a cat. In the middle of a rahter stressful couple of weeks, including a hectic shcool trip, two attacks on our students right in front of the school, and my knee acting up again to the point that I can’t even go to work and have to stay at home craddling my computer and swallowing morphine, Donald Trump was elected.

We’re not the people for whom it should be a problem. After all, this is happening across the ocean, isn’t it? And this was a democratic election where people expressed their wishes for their country as they’re supposed to, and I’m the first one to rant when people lash out against the politics of other countries without being aware of all the aspects of the situation (that’s why I was extremely annoyed when foreign blogs reacted to the Charlie Hebdo attacks by merely stating that it was very sad but then again these people were racist jerks). But it’s a bit different when you’re talking about the most powerful country in the world. Like it or not, what happens in the US can influence places very far outside the US. In Europe, the baffling trend of looking up to the USA as a model of economic success is still continuing (apparently, there are some people who consider that a country can be ‘successful’ with less-than-stellar rates of poverty, inequality or infant death). And I don’t want France to start deriving inspiration from a country led by Trump, believe me.

There is no question that this election will be a blow for the entire world. First, our environment does not have boundaries. If Trump decides that it’s off with natural reserves and climate-protecting measures, then it is. I hate to point it out, but there it is: the USA already is among the world’s major polluters. If the whole world lived like the average US citizen, we would need four or five planets the size of Earth to make ends meet. That’s one of the highest rates of the planet (twice that of Europe, and Europeans are most definitely not an example when it comes to sobriety), and there’s no use trying to blind ourselves by pointing to China and India. If, instead of taking radical steps to curb resource overconsumption, the US government decides to let every business run wild, we’re screwed. Every single one of us.

Of course, Trump’s isolationism could reassure us, from a strictly selfish standpoint. After all, it could bring an end to the negotiations on TTIP, the free-exchange treaty that has been looming over our heads for years, and which threatens to force us to bring European health regulations down to US standards, essentially destroying our agriculture in the process (as if European agriculture needed more destroying after all it’s been through in the past fifty years), and imposing private tribunals to judge whether or not a country should be able to raise its minimum wage if it makes private companies lose money (a thing that’s already happening all over the world). The thing is, Trump is not alone, and I don’t think his friends from big businesses will let go of TTIP that easily. So I don’t have much hope on that front. And I would much, much rather see Europe reject TTIP on democratic grounds (for example, after acknowledging that an overwhelming majority of the population is firmly against it) than see it go through the window decause a half-illiterate populist said so.

Plus, as my boyfriend says, it’s extremely worrying to see that Trump is planning to withdraw from the Middle-East and at the same time increase the army’s budget. If he’s not going to engage in any more wars, what on earth does he need that big army for?

Now I’m worried for another reason. Trump did it. He showed that it was possible. And we have a similar threat hanging over our heads in France, as well. The National Front, our own brand of bigoted populists, have been on the rise. If Trump won, we can’t assume we’re safe from the Le Pen family. We can’t hide our heads in the sand anymore.

There is no other way to put it: I’m disgusted. Utterly, sincerely revolted. I understand that there are many people out there who are out of patience with the ‘system’ (whatever they mean by that), and who want to shove traditional politicians out of the window, with their little nepotic games and appalling lack of awareness of what the average person’s life is like. But neither Trump nor the Le Pen family are any different: they’re wealthy people who have lost touch with reality decades ago, just like the rest of our reviled politicians. They are millionaires posing as ‘normal people’. Unbelievable as it is, it worked. Unbelievable as it is, people can see a billionaire who doesn’t pay his taxes and a political dynasty as outsiders and underdogs who will bring some honesty back into the political system. I’d love to feel genuine compassion for these voters, I truly would. I just can’t. Not because of a class thing, not because I think they’re below me, but simply because I refuse to think they’re that clueless. I refuse to think that they are just poor sheep who were fooled into believing that the wolf with the funny hat was in fact a shepherd. We’re talking about adult voters here. Whatever helplessness and frustration you feel in your daily life, I simply cannot believe that anyone can be fooled into thinking that a billionaire understands their daily concerns and will pay attention to them. No–what I believe is that, for many people, voting for either Trump or the National Front is a way to make sure that other people will be more miserable than they currently are themselves. Whether they admit it or not, it’s a way of heeding the countless dehumanising discourses that have been put out and making sure that the rabble of the world, whatever it is, will get what’s coming to them. I’m not even sure it’s supposed to make things better; as this elderly man on the bus put it the other day, it could be just a way to ‘have a good laugh’.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to some voters. Perhaps I’m letting my own anger and disgust get the better of me, I don’t know. The thing is, I don’t even want to try anymore. However bleak your life, nobody has a right to make other people miserable just to feel better. Now more than ever, it is our collective responsibility to do something about the situation we are in. And that ‘something’ is not voting for the most inept politicians out there just to see urban liberals pout. Let’s pull our collective head out our arse. The world needs it.

France, North America

The most surprising thing when you live abroad is that you’re not surprised where you expect to be. Navigating North American customs when talking to strangers or new acquaintances has been more confusing than I thought.

On the whole, it seems to me that many people in North America are incredibly polite and nice to people they’ve just met. They will smile, offer help, ask a couple of polite questions. This is quite a change from France. It’s not that French people are rude, it’s just that they tend to go straight to the point, and smiling or being extra nice is not a huge requirement. Hence the somewhat random nature of interactions with new people I usually expect in France (I didn’t realise it until recently, but I do): sometimes people will be adorable, sometimes they’ll find very creative ways to make your day a little more rotten by making you understand just how much you annoy them. That’s how it works.

Now, there is a popular theory that there are two types of attitudes depending on where you are: in some places, people are outwardly friendly but most of the bonds you form tend to remain superficial, whereas in others, people are not as outgoing but form deeper bonds of friendships. For the record, I’m highly sceptical about that. For one thing, it just sounds too neatly arranged to be true. For another, I’ve yet to find a place where you don’t manage to find wonderful people you could be friends for life with if the conditions are right. But I think I’m starting to understand where that theory comes from.

When you’re used to one form of social interaction, it’s quite difficult at first to adjust to another. In France, when people ask questions about you, make a comment about the place you’re from  or anything else that might possibly start a conversation, it usually is meant to be just that: a conversation starter. People who don’t really want to interact with you rarely bother. So, naturally, when people in Québec or in the US have said things to me such as ‘How are you today?’ or ‘You’re from Aix-en-Provence? How wonderful, my friend spent a year there and loved it!’, I tend to reply. This has led me to a few awkward situations, because the comment was never intended as a cue for me to start a conversation. It was just a nice way to make me understand I had been noticed. But not reading the situation properly made me feel rather awkward.

Now I understand North American politeness better, I actually think it’s rather nice. It’s also a shame in a way, because when people I’ve just met are friendly to me now, I tend to view them as socially competent rather than kind, but hey, socially competent is a good thing. Also I tend to be overly fond of starting conversations with strangers, and I’m firmly on my way to become that little old lady in the bus who starts chatting with her fellow passengers without the slightest regard for the book they’re reading or the phone they’re typing on, so what’s been initially awkward for me may not be for other people. Regardless, I understand how that sort of cultural misunderstanding may lead some to become disgruntled and to assume that in some places, friendliness is a shallow thing. Politeness and friendliness are both great and necessary for any society to function, but they are not the same thing, and depending on the place, they will encompass different norms and be used in different ways.

Just learn to navigate both and you’ll make great friends everywhere.