[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
Saturday was Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s big Paris rally, yesterday was Benoît Hamon’s. The venue was the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in the 12th arrondissement along the Seine, formally called the AccorHotels Arena since last year, as the corporate branding of sports stadiums and arenas—and Anglicizing their names—has now come to France (how I hate that; yet another American import to be lamented). It was said last week that this was a make-or-break event for the Hamon campaign, that he absolutely had to fill the arena and have the event be seen as a success, or else. The big turnout at Mélenchon’s rally at the République only raised the stakes, as the two men are in a neck-and-neck contest to finish ahead of the other—and, for Hamon, to obtain a respectable 1st round score (in the mid to high teens). As the Bercy arena has a maximum capacity—of some 20,000, plus a few thousand outside watching on the big screen—at least there wouldn’t be a numbers game or dispute over that.
The rally, in short, was a spectacular success. First, the arena was packed and with several thousand outside. Second, the ambiance was survolté (enthusiastic, excited), in good part thanks to the large contingent of young people—mainly from the MJS—in the arena’s pit (where I was). Third, Hamon gave a great speech. He spoke for almost an hour-and-a-half and was very good throughout (to watch it, go here). Unlike Mélenchon the day before, he targeted his opponents on numerous occasions—Marine Le Pen, François Fillon, and (particularly) Emmanuel Macron, rarely Mélenchon—though without mentioning any by name (except Marine LP once). I suppose that’s normal for a candidate in his position—and particularly aiming at Macron, as a sizable number of center-left voters are undecided between the two. There was nothing mean or below-the-belt. On a host of issues—notably immigration—he hit the right buttons and had a number of great lines. E.g.
Je sais que l’histoire de France est un bloc, comme la Révolution. Mais je ne confonds pas la Révolution et la Restauration, les communards et les Versaillais, Barrès et Zola, les dreyfusards et les anti-dreyfusards, je ne confonds pas l’histoire de Fernand Braudel et celle de Charles Maurras…
Comment aurions-nous construit la France sans les Polonais, les Italiens, les Portugais, les Marocains, les Sénégalais, etc?… Angela Merkel a parlé d’une voix d’or quand elle a dit ce qu’il fallait dire au nom même du projet européen pour les réfugiés…Vous pouvez être le prochain Thomas Pesquet, le prochain Omar Sy, la prochaine Najat Vallaud-Belkacem…
Najat V-B was indeed present in the V.I.P. area and took the mike during the warm-up, as did Christiane Taubira and others. But one noted the PS heavyweights who were not present, and whose names were not uttered once: Manuel Valls, Ségolène Royal, Stéphane Le Foll, Julien Dray… Hamon did take care at one point to positively mention François Hollande, Bernard Cazeneuve, and Jean-Yves Le Drian, which provoked applause.
There is so much that was good in Hamon’s speech. E.g. March 19th is the anniversary of two tragic events. One is the 2012 murder of the Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse by Mohammed Merah. Hamon marked the occasion by evoking their names and asking for a minute of silence in their memory, plus all the other victims of terrorism (soldiers in Montauban, Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher, November 13th). C’était fort. The other event is the formal end, in 1962, of the seven-and-a-half year Algerian war of independence, in which so many lives were lost, shattered, or upended. Hamon’s used that one to call for a new era of fraternity between the French and Algerian peoples. C’est bien.
Hamon is also the only candidate—probably excepting Macron—who will trash Trump and Putin in the same sentence—and with the audience (me included) booing at the mention of both names.
To see my photos with commentary, go to the album here (for the comments, click on the photo, then the info icon on the top right, and scroll with the arrow).
Two more things. During Hamon’s speech, my wife—who was watching it live on BFM—sent me a text message saying how impressed she was with what Hamon was saying, plus marveling that he was doing so without notes. I replied that he had a teleprompter. It was indeed the first time I’ve personally seen a teleprompter at a French political rally. Another American import. I doubt anyone noticed it or even knew what it was. No harm in that. It’s hard for even skilled orators to flawlessly pull off the 90-minute speech of their lives without something written in front of them. Most French politicos in such situations read written texts, which makes for boring, plodding speeches (e.g. Sarkozy, at his big April 2007 rally at Bercy—which I watched on the big screen outside—looked down at his text the entire time, almost never making eye contact with the audience; what a dud). Marine Le Pen, who delivers a good speech, was constantly looking at down at the lectern at her 2012 rally at the Zénith. On Saturday, Mélenchon, who’s a natural orator, had sheets of paper, which he glanced at occasionally while walking the stage and looking directly at the audience. The only French politicos I’ve seen who can speak for literally hours with no notes—who pace the stage with mike in hand—are Jean-Marie Le Pen and Philippe de Villiers. But they’re showmen, so thus a minority.
The second thing. I’ve announced to all and sundry over the past couple of months that I’ve decided to vote strategically for Emmanuel Macron in the 1st round, as there are two overriding imperatives in this election: (a) to avoid, if at all possible, a 2nd round face-off between Le Pen and Fillon, and (b) to avoid at all costs a Le Pen victory. As it is, objectively speaking, most unlikely that any Socialist candidate could make it to the 2nd round—and whose chances of victory, in that event, would be worryingly uncertain against Marine LP—that leaves Macron as the only candidate who can save France from both a discredited, increasingly reactionary Fillon and the nightmarish catastrophe of Marine LP in the Élysée. And I’m fine with Macron, who’s an interesting, worthy candidate. But after yesterday’s rally I’m rethinking my position. I don’t care about the Parti Socialiste or—with the exception of Najat V-B and maybe a couple of others—those in its V.I.P. section yesterday (see my photos), but, to repeat, I was very impressed with Benoît Hamon, and on form and substance equally. But of equal importance was the crowd, and particularly the younger generation—and which included my 23-year-old daughter and several of her friends. In France, these are my people. There are the usual disagreements on this or that issue but I relate to and identify with them. In America, they’re liberal/progressive Democratic Party voters. And Hamon is the best possible candidate the moderate French left could have fielded in this election. So if, on April 23rd, it looks fairly certain that Macron will proceed to the 2nd round to face Marine LP, I will cast my ballot for Hamon.
UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer, in an article in The American Prospect dated March 20th, assesses the visions of the five leading presidential candidates, beginning with a critique of Hamon’s economic program.
2nd UPDATE: Art Goldhammer, writing on his blog, has an assessment of Monday night’s debate, with which I very largely agree.
3rd UPDATE: France Inter political editorialist Thomas Legrand offered an insightful analysis of Monday’s debate, “Premier débat, avec des alliances et des oppositions à géométrie variable!”