James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Toast! To Democracy

A Toast! To Democracy

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Pastis in Marseille

On Wednesday evening, as I watched the debate between the two candidates for the French presidency, I felt a sense of déjà vu. I remembered feeling the same apprehension seven months ago in New York, pint in hand, when I sat down to watch Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s first of three horrifying debates.

Perhaps I still haven’t gotten over the trauma of the American elections, but I couldn’t help making the parallel. I had been anxious all day, hoping that Emmanuel Macron would convincingly face up to Marine Le Pen, who, lagging behind in the polls, seemed to have nothing to lose. Yet I soon felt a sense of relief. The centrist candidate was poised, confident and satisfyingly condescending while the far-right heiress ridiculed herself by hurling insults rather than discussing policy detail.

I had felt the same sense of reassurance after each of the Trump/Clinton debates: one candidate had clearly proved she was competent, the other had not. And yet if I have learned anything about politics in the last year, it’s that nothing is impossible. And this is why tonight, I am having a drink.

I’m in Marseille, a city that reflects many of the candidates’ talking points: immigration, Islam, unemployment. In the first round of the Presidential election two weeks ago, the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon came in first place here. But now that he is out of the race, as many as 65% of his supporters said they will abstain or spoil their ballot papers in Sunday’s second round. Sixty. Five. Percent.

I understand the aversion to Macron’s program. I understand the anger of those who have to vote for the lesser evil, election after election. But this call to abstain, especially strong among young people, is really freaking me out. I still remember, in 2002, when a million people marched in the streets to protest Le Pen’s father unexpectedly getting to the second round. Do I really need to explain why voting for her opponent is an absolute necessity?

No. I do not. They will see this. Meanwhile I will just drink this pastis and watch people walk by the Vieux Port, hoping that as many of them as possible will exercise their right to chose the future of their country. Regardless of what happens on Sunday, Marine Le Pen has clearly won something: she’s turned the Front National into a mainstream party.

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