In his novel Les Ambassades Roger Peyrefitte describes how, as his wealthy young hero's train crosses France in 1937, the blinds of the restaurant car are drawn so as not to arouse the anger of the supporters of Léon Blum's Popular Front government. I thought of this vignette as I made my way to Paris on the afternoon of France's presidential election. A promised top income tax rate of 75 per cent would soon be adding to London's already substantial French population.
Later that afternoon, as I walked through the streets of the prosperous 7th arrondissement and past the gilded dome above Napoleon's tomb, there was no evident sense of either anticipation or anxiety. French law stipulates that there can be no campaigning on election day and, were it not for an occasional queue outside a polling station, one would hardly have known that an election was taking place.
Raining on his parade: What kind of socialist will Angela Merkel allow Hollande to be? (Getty)
All of this changed at exactly 8pm. At this precise moment, as polling closed and families and friends assembled around their television sets, the result was made known to the French nation. As predicted, Hollande had won and there on our screens were scenes of joy outside the Socialist Party headquarters in the Rue de Solferino. No one had as yet actually counted the votes but this was what the exit polls told us. Indeed, such is the faith of the French in opinion polls that one wonders why the electorate cannot be saved the effort of actually turning out to vote.
It was at this point that I remembered that there is nothing quite as awful as French television. Nor, I realised for the first time, was there anything quite as glacial as the fixed smile on the face of Ségolène Royal, Hollande's former partner, the mother of his four children and failed presidential candidate in 2007.
Things started to get more interesting when Nicolas Sarkozy took to the stage at Paris's Salle de la Mutualité. For a man who hoped against hope and who believed, until the last, that victory was within his grasp, he bore his defeat with great dignity. He congratulated his opponent, thanked his supporters, took personal responsibility for the defeat, spoke of eternal France, and was gone. Perhaps never to return.
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