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.