Today, a wet Sunday, is Election Day in France. Seconds out, Round Two. Since I don’t have the right to vote, even though I pay my taxes and social contributions here, I’ve found other ways to occupy my time.
After a leisurely breakfast – during which I finished reading the novel that I’ve been stuck with for longer than I would have wished (pride demanding that I finish it, since I found the hardback copy in a Glasgow Poundland and don’t want to admit to myself that I should have left it on the shelves) – I drove up into the Corrèze to pick up The Daughter from another of her occasional overnight parties. This one took place in a holiday village of prefabricated chalets on the edge of the Lac de Miel.
As I walked Alf in the drizzle around the lake’s perimeter, I came over a tad nostalgic for the days we spent as a pioneering expats in the wilds of this largely unspoilt department. I used to walk the hound around a similar lake when we were both younger and nimbler. The morning when I saw a heron skimming low across the water through the mist that appeared to steam off the surface of the lake is one of the abiding images that have marked out my time in this foreign country.
The Corrèze, the ‘green country’ as it is dubbed (because it tends to rain), is full of lakes like ‘our lake’, as we christened it imperialistically, and the Lac de Miel. The Étang de Taysse, not that far from our old house, was another of these big holiday complexes that featured identikit mobile homes, each one a temporary Shangri-La with its porch and plastic shutters. The municipal fathers of Lille bought the lake so that its citizens could come here and enjoy the bucolic pleasures of France profonde.
We got to know one of the groundsmen there, who had given up his job designing urban traffic systems in Lille to move here with his wife and five children and tend to the lake and its surroundings with a team, he suggested, of red-neck peckerwoods. One winter, he and his colleagues had the job of cleaning out the étang, which involved – ‘quite lidder-ally’ – pulling out a giant plug and draining the water away. I’d never heard of such an operation before and, perhaps suspecting the kind of tall tale that my uncle Bill used to tell us as kids (that, for example, he once photographed Dusty Springfield for some pop magazine and discovered her face was covered in spots), I drove over to check. And lo! It was true. Where once was a shimmering silver lake was nothing but a big empty basin of boggy land.
I well remember the day I met him. His mousey wife and mother of five, who had struck up an acquaintanceship with my wife at the gates of the école maternelle, invited us over for lunch. As we shook hands, he fixed me with eyes that might be described unkindly as ‘piggy’ and said, ‘Je te regarde’. I’m looking at you. Well, um… yes, I suppose you are, I thought, looking around me in panic for help and/or elucidation. He didn’t appear to be a Travis Bickle-type, ready to pull a gun on his reflection in the mirror (‘You lookin’ at me?), so I didn’t feel threatened. Just utterly bewildered. How do you reply?
Debs came to my rescue. Apparently, he believed that he had the gift of healing the sick via the touch of His Hand. It transpired that he was looking at me as someone sickly and possibly at death’s door and clearly in need of his intervention. I seem to have this unfortunate effect on people – maybe because I’m as thin as a rake and look like I’ve been a P.O.W. for longer than is good for ones health. Once as a youth, in The Gramophone Shop in Belfast, the woman behind the counter asked my friend Spike if his friend (me) was all right. (Nothing that a hearty meal wouldn’t fix, Mrs.)
Eventually, the Healer got tired of working with peckerwoods and his wife went a bit dotty. They moved back to Lille, where he’s busy designing urban traffic systems once more.
The Corrèze, the pays vert, is also the territory – and here we come back round in a circuitous pincer movement to the nominal subject of today’s epistle, Election Day in France – of François Hollande, currently going 13 rounds in the ring with his diminutive opponent in the true-blue corner, le petit Nicolas. If I remember correctly, I once met the candidate from the red corner, not far from ‘our lake’.
‘Met’ is probably a little strong, since it was more of a passing political handshake. Our friend Régine, one of these extraordinary people with a seemingly endless supply of creative energy, ran the bar at nearby Espagnac, where our teeny daughter was once schooled. She animated that entire neck of the woods like some self-anointed sovereign. Apart from all the themed dinners, concerts, jours de fête and God knows what else she dreamed up, she organised an annual promenade creative, which gave an opportunity for artists, craftspeople and other whacky individuals like my good wife, who were struggling to sell their wares and make some kind of living, to – as the French might have it – ‘expose themselves’.
On this particular day, Debs had a stall just opposite our cadaverous artist friend, Olivier, from Paris (who taught fly-fishing whenever he was in residence in the Corrèze). She would talk to passers-by about aromatherapy and reflexology, and give demonstrations of her therapeutic craft to anyone prepared to shed a sock and a shoe. On this particular day, Régine invited her friend, François, the Deputy of the Corrèze. Give the man his due, he came and he saw and he pressed flesh and even exchanged a few words before his minders whisked him off.
I wasn’t won over. I found him somewhat grey. However, if I had the vote, it would certainly go to the man who stared at tired daughter, wet dog and me from posters dotted along the route home. It’s not because I necessarily think that his policies are what France needs, but because I think he’s fundamentally unpretentious and, mirabile dictu, honest. Besides, I like his stance on addressing sexual discrimination in French political life and taxing the super-rich at a higher rate than ordinary mortals. And, out of pure self-interest, he would confer the right to vote on expatriates.
Under le petit Nicolas, France seems to have become a meaner, more depressed and repressed and selfish place. We could all do with more generosity of spirit in these troubled times.