The French Presidential Election: Up Close and Personal

Macron’s field workers try to persuade an angry French voter in a spirited pre-election Parisian scene, captured by Swarthmorean Vivian Corbin.

Macron’s field workers try to persuade an angry French voter in a spirited pre-election Parisian scene, captured by Swarthmorean Vivian Corbin.

By Vivian Corbin

After the shock of the election of a President many consider a threat to democracy, world peace, and the environment, I felt that I had to do my part, however small, to prevent the same thing from happening in France where another Putin favorite, right-wing, anti-EU candidate was gaining in the polls.

The first round of voting had winnowed the original 11 candidates down to 2: Emmanuel Macron, a 39 year-old centrist who had created his own party, En Marche, just a year before, and Marine Le Pen, the longtime leader of the Front National who had supplanted her father, the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Right away I began buttonholing people on the streets, in cafes, even the gendarmes guarding Paris’s beautiful City Hall, reminding them how critical this vote was and how dangerous a Le Pen victory would be, citing the example of the U.S. presidential election. “Don’t make the same mistake that we did,” I pleaded, linking Le Pen to Trump and Putin.

We caught up with Macron field workers — they loved my Obama campaign buttons that I had pinned to my backpack — then we set to work engaging potential voters. While we found genuine enthusiasm for Macron, especially among younger generations, for many, the desire to block Le Pen was paramount. But there were Ni la peste ni le cholera (neither plague nor cholera) voters who were angry with the current socialist government of Francois Hollande and with Macron as its finance minister.

One very enthusiastic Macron supporter, a Muslim woman in a headscarf, told me she feared for her children and grandchildren under a Le Pen presidency. Her parents originally had come from Algeria, and she, her parents, her children, and their children are all French citizens. “I am French,” she declared proudly.

On election night, May 7, Macron supporters were invited to a meeting at the Louvre. As my husband and I walked up the rue Rivoli, the crowds thickened. Police vans lined the street and heavily armed riot police patrolled the area. Once inside, we found ourselves between the Arc du Carousel and the Pyramid du Louvre. A giant screen had been set up for the occasion.

The result of the election was to be announced at 8 p.m. As the hour approached, tensions mounted and our hearts were palpitating wildly from the suspense that had been building up for days. Then exactly at 8, on the large screen before us: Macron 65,1%; Le Pen 34,9%!  Everyone around us was delirious. Macron gave his first speech as President from his campaign headquarters against the backdrop of the European Union flag, to the sounds of “Ode to Joy,” the anthem of the European Union. Then he joined the crowds at the Louvre where he was greeted with overwhelming joy.

Après le vote

I spoke with voters in the days following the election. In the Latin Quarter, in front of a newspaper kiosk displaying dozens of magazines with photos of the newly elected president on their front covers, I encountered the owner of “Les Fetes Galantes,” a restaurant popular with students from nearby Ecole Polytechnique. “Are you happy with your new president?” I asked. She replied: “Oui. Tres.” (Yes, very much so.) “Because he will do many good things; he is young and he has new ideas.”

At the Cafe de la Mairie in the Saint Germain des Pres quartier, I asked a waiter if he had voted for Macron. Shaking his head no, he said: “J’ai vote blanc.” (To vote blanc is to cast a blank paper ballot.) When I asked why, he replied that he didn’t think any politician would do anything for someone like him. When I pointed out that a “vote blanc” was a vote for Le Pen, two women sitting nearby protested, arguing that to “vote blanc” was a justifiable option.

Then there was the truly anti-Macron individual. While photographing the market on Rue Mouffetard in the Quartier Latin, a man approached to inquire about my camera. He clearly was a professional. When he saw my Obama and Macron buttons, he allowed that he dislikes both because they are against Putin.

“Are you Russian?” I asked. “No, I am Sovietique,” he replied. “Do you like Putin,” I asked. “I support him,” he answered, adding, “I can’t understand why so many countries are against him.” Apparently living in Paris for the past 16 years, the ideals of democracy had not rubbed off on him. I had to ask: “Are you a spy?” Funny, he didn’t reply. Hmm, a professional photographer? Perfect cover!

Despite a few negative and pessimistic encounters, the overwhelming sentiment among those I spoke with, is hope that, with this election, at long last, positive change will come to France. Shouted one youthful voter, “Yes we can!”

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