Two good things with international ramifications — a global climate agreement and an electoral defeat for a rightwing, xenophobic party — have emerged from Paris since the terrorist attacks in mid-November. Seasoned pundits differ sharply in their analysis of the impact of these events on France, perhaps not surprisingly, given the many moving parts.
On the same page of the 14 December edition of the Financial Times, for example, an editorial ruled that 'the battle against Le Pen is far from won in France' while Gideon Rachman struck an upbeat note with 'Le Pen, climate and the defeat of nationalism'. On the same day, the Paris correspondent for the International New York Times wrote 'the French vote shows (the) limits of support for the far right' but on the opinion page of the same edition, regular contributor Sylvie Kaufmann, editorial director of French media flagship 'Le Monde', considered Le Pen merely 'postponed'. The same edition also showed a lack of consensus on the climate agreement, with Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman ('Hope from Paris') and green activist Bill McKibben ('Falling short on climate in Paris') differing sharply.
I'll leave detailed analysis of the climate agreement to other, more expert commentators but there can be no argument that the very fact an accord was reached was a victory for international diplomacy and thus cannot be anything than a thorn in the side of those preaching narrow nationalism as a magical way out of all trouble. Which brings us to the political and economic impact of the night of ISIS-inspired terrorism on 13 November. It has put security and terrorism at the top of the French political agenda and correlations with the other principal preoccupation, the weak economy and especially its impact on employment, are as evident as they are contradictory.
Voting in France is complicated. It is also frequent, and most votes are conducted in two rounds combining majority and proportional elements. For a country so proverbially centralised, the number of sub-national structures (regions, departments, cantons, municipalities), all with elected officials, is considerable.
Thus it is not easy to make political sense of the just concluded 'regionals', the first vote in two rounds since 13 November 'which changed France forever', as we frequently hear. The first round was seen to be, and indeed in terms of pure numbers was, a landslide for the far right National Front. Then came the second round and the traditional parties of the right and the left won a clear majority in all of the 13 French regions including Corsica, where traditional but resolutely independent nationalists won, shutting the Front out from regional power.
How can we explain the different results?
It seems likely the first round was used to vent frustration with regard to the economy and security. In the second round, fear about terror striking so close appeared to draw voters back to the traditional parties, viewed as more able to assure basic safety for the individual citizen and eventual economic recovery. The reaction after major terrorist attacks is apparently to rally around the flag and its traditional representatives, which is not good news for untested parties, however much they call for the proverbial 'strong man' or, in the case of France, 'woman', as Marine Le Pen is leader of the Front with her niece Marion the closest rival.
Everyday life in Paris is back to normal; on the surface at least. But wherever one turns, the social and economic fall-out from the terror night is also evident. Casual conversations show people have changed what they do and how they think. The normally bustling Mandarin-only floor of the Paris shopping beacon Les Galleries Lafayette is now empty, save the bilingual staff waiting to serve Taiwanese and Chinese tourists who are no longer there.
Some of the comments heard from normally level-headed acquaintances are worrying. A former colleague and his wife, our Ambassadorial counterparts in two previous professional assignments, refuse to go out even to eat, except for an occasional foray into church, though 'that is where they will shoot at us next', the wife comments on the phone. The owner of a bistro in the heart of the Paris neighborhood where the terror occurred is convinced police now fear 'the Kalashnikov wielding terrorists' to the point where they will delay attending terrorist attacks to keep themselves out of harms' way. 'Otherwise , how could they have missed the multiple 'Bistro shootings' occurring some time after the initial attacks on the football stadium and on the nightclub?' the bistro owner argues. He intends to close his bistro and move his family elsewhere.
However much one tries to point to the factual, logistical and statistical flaws in such reasoning, an uneasy feeling persists. One senses that many, overwhelmed by bad news on many fronts (Paris has days where car travel is restricted due to dangerously high pollution levels), are close to panic.
This is why the climate agreement and the second-round defeat of the National Front are such welcome news, even though interpretations differ. They offer a reassuring counterpoint. They inspire hope that a Europe that learnt its lessons from the 1930s will fight back again, chasing out the black and brown shadows of its past.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Jorbasa Fotografie