In which we discuss Trees, Elections and Belgian Cowpunks…
Well, there are definite signs that Spring is on its way, here in the Perigord Vert. The days are getting sunnier and the rain is warming up! We get quite a bit of rain here at this time of year – as it was explained to me, you can’t have le vert without la pluie!
We’ve actually welcomed the rain this week, as it has allowed us to take a bit of a break from working in the garden. Our house came with a sizeable field which we’ve decided to turn into a mixed fruit orchard, along with a vegetable garden, which means we can move towards a bit more self-sufficiency in the coming years. Planting an orchard from scratch is not for the faint-hearted, especially when you’re trying to work to permaculture guidelines. With the field being on a slope you have to dig up the turf where you’re planting each tree and that gets turned over to form a lip at the front so you have a sort of dam to hold any water that might fall. Then you plant the tree, but you have to fill the hole and there’s less soil because of the turf lip. And that’s where we got some help from our resident moles; we’ve cursed them more than a few times for all the mounds around the place – but it’s perfect soil for backfilling the tree planting sites! Then you have to top-dress the patch with mulch…then you have to cover the wider area with paper, to suppress the grass, and then cover that with mulch. Then you put on the deer guard and you’re done! Easy. Unfortunately, we had over thirty trees to plant so the rain put in a timely appearance – it gave us a deadline to work to (weather forecasting is much more accurate when you don’t need to take the North Sea into account), watered all the trees in nicely, and provides a good excuse for doing very little for a couple of days. Now, all we have to do is sit back and wait for the fruit – about three years we reckon…
On the political front, I’ve been trying to get my head around the French electoral system. The Presidential elections will be with us in April and there’s a lot of talk about what the outcome might be – though the general opinion seems to be that President Macron will be returned for a second term. While he’s not particularly liked he is reasonably well respected, and the consensus seems to be that he’s done a decent job in difficult times. His recent decision to make state-owned energy company, EDF, swallow the bulk of the energy price hike hasn’t hurt his electability either!
Presidential elections here come around every five years and the five-year term is renewable just once, similar to the American Presidential system. So, this will be Macron’s second and final term as president, should he be re-elected. The elections are held in two rounds. At the moment, the various parties (France has quite a few political parties) are deciding who their presidential candidates will be. A candidate needs at least 500 elected representatives to nominate them (mayors, deputy mayors, councillors, etc). That sounds like a lot of nominations to collect but France has quite a devolved system of government, with each commune having its own mayor and other elected officials. The country is broken up into Departments, similar to UK counties, and there are 96 departments in the country itself and a further five in overseas territories. The departments further break down into cantons and then communes – so there’s a lot of regional devolvement and a lot of local government. On the 21st March, the official list of presidential candidates will be published. Three weeks later, on the 10th April, electoral campaigns can begin (no campaigning can start before this date) and there is a strict upper spending limit imposed on all campaigning and this is closely scrutinised. All candidates must be allowed exactly the same amount of campaign exposure through media outlets. On the 24th April, the French people go to the polls for the first round of the election. All French citizens over the age of 18 can vote in the election, regardless of whether they are living in the country or not. Unless a single candidate gains at least 50% of the votes cast, the election will go to a second round. It’s highly unlikely that any one candidate will secure 50% of the vote.
If there is a second round of voting, only the two candidates with the most votes in the first round will be allowed through to the second round. The second round of voting takes place on May 7th and the candidate who secures the most votes is elected.
So, who are the runners and who are the contenders?! So far, more than 30 candidates have declared their intention to stand for the Presidency. Emmanuel Macron, the current President, is among those who have not yet declared an intention to stand, though it is almost certainly just a formality and he will be among the candidates. Only three of the candidates declaring their intention to run have, at the time of writing, secured the necessary number of nominations to get onto the ballot form, though many more will join them before nominations close on the 4th March. It’s quite an exhaustive process and many of these candidates will already have gone through a similar elimination procedure within their own parties.
The reality is that it would be a brave or foolhardy person who bets against Macron this time around. It’s not that he or his policies are particularly popular but more that there’s really little credible opposition to his candidacy. Yannick Jadot and his Green/Environmentalist party are expected to do well in the National Assembly elections that follow the Presidential election but he is not considered a viable candidate for the Presidency. Marine Le Pen will, again, be in the running and there are pockets of major support for far-right candidates, especially around the larger cities, but she is seen as unsound economically and the far-right vote is now quite divided, with other candidates likely to water down her support. The left is also, in general, too divided to put up a consensus candidate that will attract large amounts of votes, but one surprise has been the rise in popularity of Fabien Roussel, the 52-year-old National Secretary of the Communist Party. The PCF, the Communist Party of France, has been in existence since 1920, and had all but been consigned to the history books. They have a small number of MEPs that sit in the European United Left group and, while they were very active in the immediate post-war years, in recent years they have campaigned alongside other left-wing parties, without putting up their own presidential candidate. Recent developments have meant that Roussel is now campaigning as a presidential candidate on behalf of the party itself, and has gained some real traction by attacking the modern trend towards healthier lifestyles, claiming that they undermine more traditional French values. He has attacked parties like the Greens for wanting to eliminate “life’s simple pleasures” and encourage healthier, plant-based diets, saying “What are we going to eat? Tofu and soy beans? Oh, come on!” It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off because, he alone among the left, is trying to appeal to the rural population. Currently, many left-wing leaders cater only to the concerns of the middle class in large cities and that has cost them votes in the wider countryside. Roussel is a staunch supporter of nuclear energy, has been vocal in supporting hunting groups (a popular activity in rural areas), and is in favour of stricter interpretation of the laws on secularism. He is seen as being a left-wing champion for the many, rather than the few. Under the slogan “Happy Days for France” (a reference to a French Resistance manifesto from the end of World War II) he could yet emerge as the candidate most likely to win left-wing support as a presidential candidate.
The main challenge from the right would now seem to come from Les Républicains. The old Gaullist party is seen as centre-right and on the liberal side of conservative values. They’re pro-European, as are most parties in France these days, and have a well-respected presidential candidate in Valérie Pécresse, who has served as a minister in previous governments. Are the Republicans’ policies different enough to Macron’s to give them an edge? Only time, and the campaign trail, will tell! Amusingly, Michel Barnier, whose supposed candidacy the British Press made much fuss about, was never more than a rank outsider within France. He dropped out of contention back in December and has since declared his support for Pécresse.
Enough of politics, for now! Let’s get to the music and what has been floating my boat while I’ve pondered the intricacies of French elections. First up has been a return to some early Old Crow Medicine Show and the “Remedy” album, that has been much played Chez Nous over the last couple of weeks – just great music from one of the best Old Time outfits around. Delving further into the European Americana scene I’ve been really enjoying the album “Cowboys Con Cojones” from Belgian Cowpunks Hetten Des. The band consists of Sam Malec on guitar, Michel Spiessens on bass, David Thys on drums, and they’re fronted by singer and guitarist Johnny Trash, who seems to be quite a character on the Belgian scene. The album’s a good mix of self-composed tracks and established covers, including a great version of the Neil Diamond song, ‘Solitary Man’ and their “signature song”, a rockabilly version of Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’. This album dates back to 2005, but the band is still going strong and they are expected to appear at various festivals in mainland Europe this summer. Finally, for this time around, I’ve been particularly enjoying the almost surreal experience of Heinrich XIII & The Devilgrass Pickers, an impressive “sort-of” Bluegrass band from Wölfersheim, in Germany. The band features guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro, upright bass, fiddle, and drums in a variety of combinations and a seemingly fluid lineup of slightly oddball musicians, built around main man and visionary Henric Steuernagel. The band play “straight, true and hellbound country music” according to their website, and they are a lot of fun!
It’s early days yet, but the search for Americana bands in continental Europe is already throwing up a lot of interesting music. There’s gold in them thar (European) hills!
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