French Connections

In the week leading up to Easter and Passover, I took leave and we headed off to France – train to London and then onto Paris and Avignon. We arrived in France the evening before the first round of the French presidential election. We spent the rest of the week exploring Provencal villages. They all have their local Mairie and I took to searching out the building to look up the local results of presidential voting. This was the lowest level of French democracy – what we’d call wards – and the results were posted in the door of the Mairie.  In each village, Macron, Le Pen and Melenchon – the centrist, far right and far left candidates – accounted for the overwhelming majority of the votes. The even further right-wing Eric Zemmour was normally fourth, edged out in some villages by the Greens. But the traditional parties of left and right – the Parti Socialiste and the Republicains – were nowhere. In one small village, Anne Hidalgo, the PS candidate and current elected mayor of Paris, attracted zero votes. This is an extra-ordinary outcome.  Since the Fifth Republic was established in 1958 it is the Parti Socialiste and the Republicains, formerly the Gaullists, who have dominated French politics. Their combined vote in 2022 was less than 5%. The traditional right and left have been eviscerated.

Under the French electoral system, the top two candidates – Macron and Le Pen – went through to the second round which took place just before this blog was published. As it happened, Macron won comfortably, but less convincingly than in the 2017 election. One strand of analysis in the French newspapers I looked at while we were in France argued that Marine Le Pen, who had sought to shed some of the explicit racism which characterised her earlier campaigns, might nonetheless pick up a fair number of the votes which had gone in the first round to the far left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and, indeed, maps of the result suggested that le Pen did best in the former French coalfields of the north east. Le Pen was offering a culturally conservative but economically interventionist mixture, whilst Macron represented a (largely) socially liberal but economically conservative platform. Again, this is a remarkable transformation: the old certainties of the French left and right have dissolved and politics has re-assembled around different, and in many ways disorienting divisions, between a free-market centrism and populism. We’ve seen parallel tendencies in UK politics, in those ‘red wall’ seats which Labour lost in 2019, but the greater fluidity of the French party system makes it all much more obvious to the eye (even my untrained eye).

As it happens, amongst the pile of books I had packed for the week was Christopher Bayly’s account of the twentieth century – The Remaking of the Modern World. It’s an extraordinary book, ranging across the whole globe and making linkages across countries, ideas and trends. One of Bayly’s key arguments is about the ‘tipping point’ of 1979-1991, when the conjuncture of oil price increases, the movement of extractive and manufacturing industries out of Europe and north America, the global rise of the Chinese and Indian economies, and the collapse of Soviet communism wrought fundamental changes in global economies and society. Those changes have shaped the world of the early twenty-first century, significantly fracturing previous ideologies and debates. Throughout the world, issues of identity, have become more important, with culture, faith, nationality and locality playing a greater role – in ways which would have been quite unexpected before the ‘tipping point’. And these issues play themselves out whether in rural France, former industrial northern England or higher education.

There’s are always tendencies for all of us to focus on the here and now: the place where we happen to be and the everyday. That’s one reason to take a break, to stand back a bit, and when we look at our own surroundings from a distance, we sometimes become aware of things we’d only half-grasped when embedded in daily routine. In universities, of course, we are no different, and we can take a good deal for granted. I’ve written before about the challenge for universities in a divided world – the need to demonstrate value not just for those who attend university but for people and place more generally. That means, of course, thinking hard about the challenges which are thrown up for us by this often bewildering world. For a generation or more, and perhaps more than any other institution, universities have been places of global connection and interchange. That’s a vital role, and one which makes them stimulating places to work. We also need to find a way to work our way through the complexities of a world which has become divided so unpredictably.

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