'Imagination will take you everywhere'
It was a hot summer’s day when they left me. I watched as our car drove away, with my family in it. They had just dropped me off in the French city that was to be my home for the next 10 months. Reims, in the North East of the country, famous for its cathedral and champagne, was surrounded by rows of vines with clusters of fat grapes ripening in the August sunshine.
I had spent months deliberating about spending a year studying abroad. In the end it was one of my university professors that swung it; she reminded me that I will only be young once. It stuck with me. Carpe diem I thought. And what better place to live in than the land of cheese and baguettes?
The first time I saw the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims was on a page in J.M.W Turner’s sketchbook at Tate Britain. His detailed lines carved out the gargoyles and gothic flourishes that have been discussed in architecture classes around the continent. Now the cathedral had been removed from the white blankness of the page and was framed by scaffolding and tourists taking photos. It was taller than I had imagined, its two towers soared into the sky. It had been badly bombed during World War I; old photographs show a shell with shattered windows.
Around 30 years later it became a symbol of Franco-German peace when the German commander-in-chief signed the full German Surrender in Reims on 7th May 1945, signaling the end of World War II. As I grew to love this historic city, the cathedral became my own special symbol – representing resilience in the face of adversity. When I felt homesick, I would look at this architectural beast looming out of the cityscape and know that it had been through a hell of a lot more than I could ever imagine. On my walk to university I could see its towers peeking at me between buildings and on nights out we would pass it on our way back home. It was a meeting place, a sanctuary, a marker on a map; the heart of Reims. It was where Marine Le Pen was booed on her final campaign stop before the election.
10 months whizzed by. Little did I know just how much the political landscape surrounding us would alter in that time. I left the UK during the aftermath of the EU Referendum – Brexit was forever cropping up in conversations when I introduced myself. I feared my country’s decision would isolate me, but that was far from reality: I was welcomed with a warmth I was not expecting. With populism reaching a boiling point around Europe, I entered a country that was hurtling towards an unpredictable election with Front National gaining ground and the Socialist Party (which had governed since 2012) falling apart. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, known as the ‘Dutch Trump’ with his blonde bouffant and far-right views, was looking confident. And on the 8th November we gathered in a pub to watch in dismay as across the pond the US elected the real Trump. From our liberal enclave a collective cry of “Quelle horreur!” emanated, or something along those lines…
Would France head in the same direction, I pondered over my café au lait (instead of revising French grammar). It was no surprise my French teacher was getting exasperated. My thoughts were taken up by the election, as well as which boulangerie made the best almond croissants. I had already spoken to a supporter of Front National, who fully supported a possible ‘Frexit’, believing that it would create more jobs. On the other hand, a loyal Républicain told me how shocked and disappointed he was by people blaming the EU for everything, which he described as being “intellectually dishonest”. He said he wondered what General de Gaulle would have thought of the 2017 election campaign. One Socialist supporter thought this was the worst election the 5th Republic had ever seen; it certainly was for her party.
I had never been that engrossed with British politics, but there was something about being slightly detached from a country which made me enjoy observing what was happening. I was an outsider looking in; exempt from the pressure of actually voting, but still highly interested in the outcome. I checked the polls almost every day, and would bore my friends with talk of it at parties. I certainly wasn’t pretending I was an expert, but I was learning. Every French student I encountered would be faced with a barrage of questions on the election, which was usually met with a detailed analysis of the French political system (it was Sciences Po, the institute of political studies, after all). Everyone had an opinion. In the months before, our campus was abuzz.
And what a rollercoaster the election campaign was; most surprising was the rapid ascension of a grassroots movement that was only just celebrating its first birthday as the initial round of voting commenced. ‘En Marche!’ (‘Onward!’ or ‘Let’s go!’) was founded by Emmanuel Macron in April 2016, a man that has taken France and the world by storm.
Young, handsome, and hopeful, it’s no wonder Macron drew comparisons with Napoleon Bonaparte. A pro-European, pro-business centrist, he had a vision and a positivity that radiated. He broke down the boundaries that for so long had made politics inaccessible, and his departure from the traditional left/right party structure was exciting. A friend of mine who is also a member of the ‘En Marche!’ youth branch, said that political parties cause problems; they put people into boxes that are not always relevant. Many saw him as a refreshing change in a country dominated by an out-of-touch establishment.
I witnessed this charismatic powerhouse first hand at a Rally attended by almost 1,300 people in Reims. Sitting next to my German friend, both of us waving the European Union flag, as young and old chanted ‘Vive la France!’ amidst a sea of dancing Tricolours. It was a heart-warming sight, more akin to a concert. I listened to Macron as he spoke passionately about the EU, about his country and its beloved culture. In that moment I wished I was French. I felt part of something big. Admittedly, I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying, but gosh he sounded good.
On 23rd April my friends and I sat drinking warm wine served by a nonchalant Front National supporting waiter, and breathed a sigh of relief as Macron came out ahead in the first round – but Le Pen was biting at his heels. He had only gained 24% of the vote. Many of the students I spoke to said the second round would be a case of voting for the least bad option, some even considered a vote blanc (abstention) in protest. “Why?” I asked, surely Macron is miles better than Le Pen? But these were students who had not been so easily won by his charm, most of whom were staunch supporters of Mélenchon, the leftist firebrand leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). At the bar a group of his deflated voters sat at the table next to us. C’est la vie I could almost hear them whisper.
Fast forward two weeks and on a warm Spring evening in Rennes, Brittany, there was a distinct buzz on the streets, and it wasn’t because of the wine I’d consumed. In a packed brasserie, we watched as Monsieur President glided along the Louvre esplanade to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (official anthem of the EU). There was no doubt this was a win for Europe.
Macron, “Europe’s saviour” as headlines declared at the time, was seen as the driver of radical political renewal not only in France but on the continent. It was after all, his neighbour, Angela Merkel, whom he first visited following his inauguration, to draw up plans for their beloved Europe. The populist uprising that had threatened to break out following Brexit and Trump never materialised. In Holland, Mark Rutte beat off Wilders, and the GreenLeft party led by Jesse Klaver (or the “Jessiah”) upped its MPs from 4 to 14.
Coming back to Britain when my 10 months were up, I felt as if I’d crossed an abyss rather than just the Channel. I returned to a country not only reeling from a series of horrific terror attacks, but also in the midst of a snap election campaign. As the storm clouds hung over my home country (both metaphorically and meteorologically), I found myself yearning for a political figure like Macron to get behind.
But is Jupiter now descending? Macron appears to be well and truly out of his honeymoon period. The President’s approval rating has continued to slide downwards; an Ifop poll in October revealed it to be at 42 percent – lower than that of his predecessor, François Hollande, who was considered to be France’s most unpopular president. Many now refer to Macron as “President of the Rich”. His first budget since his election saw a reining in of public spending, and tax cuts for the wealthy.
This is not his only policy that’s caused controversy. On 16th November, 170 towns and cities held demonstrations against Macron’s labour reforms, one of his big election pledges. My French teacher used to say protesting was their national sport, indeed, we have seen a lot of anger on les rues in recent months. Yet no real change has come out of it. The National Assembly is dominated by Macron’s ‘La Republique En Marche’, meaning any opposition from parties like the Socialists or La France Insoumise, make little impact.
Why do I still harbour a strange love for the President of the Republic? It’s not because of his Labrador cross, nor is it his perfect jawline, or strong handshake game. Apart from the way he’s inspired so many, I think it’s because he was such a strong presence during my year in France. His face stared out at me from posters, news articles, TV screens; his name thrown about in debates and lectures. His rise to the throne correlated with my foray into French life. Through him (and the election) I was able to connect with French people. Above all, he gives me hope for a new improved European Union – something I didn’t fully understand before my year abroad. Now I have had the chance to live in another European country and have friends from around the continent, I have seen just how important the relationship between our countries is – something Reims itself is proof of. I started my year abroad as a British girl, I returned as a European.