4 May: I was expecting to bump into Doris Lessing

As the election campaign ends, the last instalment of Marlière Across La Manche foresees interesting but uncertain times for France and Europe.

Philippe Marlière
4 May 2012

This election has its charming moments. Yesterday I was invited for lunch by a group of “left-wing” Londoners who meet once a month at the Gay Hussar in Soho. Some are still professionally active, but most are retired people. There was a strong contingent of solicitors and lawyers, a couple of trade-unionists and people working in management in the public services. A majority are members of the Labour party, one of them was presented to me as a “Communist Party member”; most had been at some point in the Communist Party. I was expecting to bump into Doris Lessing in the small overcrowded room where we all met. I love the Gay Hussar, the mythical place of the British Left. You first struggle with the two swing doors to enter the restaurant. On the left hand side, the wall is covered from top to bottom by rows of frames. In each frame there is a drawing representing a caricature of a well-known left-wing personality (politicians, trade-unionists, journalists). Waiters are always grumpy, but it is part of the Gay Hussar folklore. I went upstairs and entered this ridiculously small room in which the 20 members in attendance were waiting for me. The meeting time was 12.15, I got there at 12.17. My table-companions were all seated and there was no room behind the wall and the rows of chairs for me to walk to the centre of the U-shaped table. Everyone had to stand up to let me pass. When I finally reached the centre of the table, the club president told me: “When Ed Balls came here, he crawled under the table to reach his seat”. The thought of Ed Balls crawling under the table in this minuscule room made me feel like giggling. My host was one of the most delightful persons I have ever met in London. He was warm, witty and clever. He is the sort of individual who puts his hand on your arm when he speaks to you as people do in southern Europe. In my eighteen years in this country, I had never been touched by an Englishman before. My host proceeded to introduce me to the 20 members. Then we had to choose our courses from the menu. This was a solemn moment. After ordering our food, my host made a little introductory speech and gave me the floor. I spoke for about 15 minutes about the French presidential election. I had barely concluded when the waiter started to bring the hors-d’oeuvre. There was little respite for me. I had not yet finished eating my soup before the first series of questions came. I was expecting a nice, easy conversation. I was wrong: The questions were all pertinent and… complex: questions on growth, the fiscal compact, the institutional framework of the European Union, the constitution of the 5th republic and so on and so forth. I had a bit of a tough time considering that I had to carefully listen to the questions, answer and eat my goulash all at the same time. They seemed happy enough to tell me that they would invite me again in one year time to “review the situation”. It was one of the most pleasant “working lunches” that I have ever had.


Doris Lessing (front right) with John Osborne in 1961. Behind them are Sheila Delaney and Vanessa Redgrave. Photograph: Reg Warhurst/Associated Newspapers/Rex

François Bayrou, the fifth man in the first round (9.1%), announced yesterday that he will vote for François Hollande despite “disagreeing with Hollande’s economic programme”. Bayrou has had a long political journey since the 1990s when he was a regular cabinet minister in all right-wing governments. He is a moderate, a Christian democrat appalled by Nicolas Sarkozy’s hard right campaign and his unashamed flirt with the Front National. I think that this late decision will not impact on Sunday’s result. To paraphrase Pierre Bourdieu, the political centre does not exist in France, it is an artefact. The centre always ends up leaning to the right. His electorate will be split: up to 40% of them might vote for Hollande because they will prefer a moderate Socialist to a man on the hard right; 40% will vote for Sarkozy because MoDem (Bayrou’s party) is a centre-right party and the rest will abstain. It is interesting to note that in this campaign the “political centre” was totally invisible. French politics is about left and right. When an election is polarised – as this one was – and when left and right propose alternative policies to voters, few people in France are attracted to this political soft belly.

Alea iacta est. The presidential campaign will officially end today at midnight. So it is time for me to call it a day too. If on Sunday Hollande wins it by a landslide, I foresee interesting although uncertain times in France and in Europe. A large victory would give Hollande a mandate to change the political and economic course of action, notably with regards to austerity policies. In this case scenario, Hollande would have to take decisive action or he would soon plunge his supporters into despair. A narrow Hollande win would mean more centrist policies and possible talks of an alliance with Bayrou’s “centre”. Now, if Sarkozy miraculously manages to win the race, I predict social unrest for the next five years.

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