26 April: Mass rallies are back

Despite previous predictions of voter apathy and dull campaigns, we are witnessing a real presidential race — with powerful oratory and a high turnout at rallies for France in 2012. Today’s instalment of Marlière Across La Manche

Philippe Marlière
26 April 2012

Blasé pundits in France have lamented a “dull” campaign and pollsters had predicted a low turnout. Both got it wrong. I think that this has been one of the most captivating presidential races since the 1980s. More importantly, it has been a polarised campaign. Candidates have stood their corner and fought for their ideas: Le Pen has proved a formidable competitor; Sarkozy has been clearly on the right (and not on the “centre right”); Hollande has behaved like a proper social democrat (not like a Blairite free-marketeer), and Mélenchon has resurrected a credible left-wing alternative to social democracy (not a “loony left” one).

Melenchon rally

Demotix/Samuel Jouglet-Marcus. A rally in support of the leftist Presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

One of the most striking features of this campaign has been the return of mass rallies. They were never exactly out of fashion in France, but this time they have made a spectacular come-back. Why bother to organise costly mass rallies in the age of new technologies and alleged political apathy, though? Do they help convince voters? There is no scientific answer to that, but my guess is that mass rallies essentially attract the converted.

So why have any? I think that they help galvanise and mobilise supporters. For candidates, it helps them to make a political statement in front of the cameras: a well attended rally with enthusiastic crowds looks good on television, and gives the impression of momentum behind the candidate.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon was largely responsible for giving mass rallies a new lease of life. Commentators agreed that he was the best and most inspiring orator of the campaign. His rallies drew impressive and enthusiastic crowds. “La prise de la Bastille” (“The storming of the Bastille”) in Paris was symbolically charged. In Toulouse (a city with an anti-fascist tradition since the Spanish civil war) Mélenchon paid tribute, in Spanish, to the “heroes of the Republican republic”. Over 120,000 people gathered by the seaside to hear Mélenchon praise the “Arabic heritage” of Marseille, the city with the highest number of mixed marriages in Europe. This was a brave thing to do in one of the Front National’s bastions.

I have heard Mélenchon speak countless times in public, and he is not simply a mesmerising orator. His speeches are complex and carefully crafted. Unlike “modern” politicians, his sentences are long, full of historical references, peppered with lines of poetry and other literary citations. Like a school teacher, he is a pedagogue. When he makes a point, he wants to demonstrate it from A to Z. He believes that rallies are not places where people should hysterically shout the name of a candidate, but where they should “collectively reflect”.

Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s rallies were less well attended, quieter and more professionally organised. Days before the first round, both spoke before large crowds in Place de la Concorde and in Vincennes.

Finally, mass rallies are fun to attend. They are a moment of political socialisation for the young and they create what Emile Durkheim called a situation of “collective effervescence”. I have had first-hand experience of that. In 1988, I attended François Mitterrand’s rally in Lille. When he eventually joined us (some two hours late) he was followed by a group of intellectual and show-biz courtesans. The crowd went absolutely mad. People were pushing each other to get close to the president to touch him as if he was some thaumaturge king. I remember Mitterrand’s Mona Lisa smile and the look of panic on his bodyguard's face.

Political rallies end with songs in France, so I’ll end with one too. Traditional songs like The International or La Marseillaise are often played, while popular songs can also become campaign hits. This year, HK & Les Saltimbanks’s “On Lâche Rien!” (We don’t give up!) closed Mélenchon’s rallies with youthful energy.

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