Markets, Macron and Musique.
Rural France is, pretty much, in semi-hibernation for much of the winter. Around mid-October, it all goes very quiet. Many bars and restaurants shut up shop and people just hunker down to get on with their lives. Easter, or Pâques, as it is called here, is the big start point for the social side of the year. From Easter onwards, the countryside starts to come back to life and there is no more obvious example of this than the markets. Many towns in the French countryside have weekly markets that run throughout the year but, with the summer approaching, we now start to see smaller markets springing up in the larger villages. The regular weekly markets also seem to swell in size; a few more stalls and more people attending, parking places getting a little harder to find. Our local market, in the town of Thiviers, is rated as one of the best in the region and it was really buzzing on the Saturday of the Easter weekend. We’re regular attendees and love our Saturday morning at the market. It’s great to walk around, buy a few things, say hello to the friends and neighbours you bump into, chat with the stallholders who recognise you as regulars, stop for a coffee and, maybe, a croissant at one of the local cafes around the market square – it is one of those quintessential aspects of French life that seems to really resonate with those of us who choose to move here from other countries. We used to enjoy going to our local Farmers’ market when we lived in the UK, but good as they can be, they’re often a pale shadow of the weekly markets here in France. In the UK, going to the market is shopping, in France it is a social event and it’s great to know that it will just get livelier and more entertaining as the summer progresses.
As I’m sure many of you can imagine, Sunday night, the 24th April, a huge relieved sigh could be heard from our immigrant community across France. I don’t know any foreign resident in France who wasn’t worried about the prospect of Le Pen getting elected, a view shared by all our French friends here, despite the way it may look when you see the election results. In fact, the figures suggest that Le Pen was well supported when it is really a case of her supporters turning out to vote in a very low turnout election – the lowest vote in fifty years! As ever in politics, context is all-important and, in many ways, the most significant thing about the election is the return of Macron. Unlike the U.S, where it is the norm for an incumbent president to get a second term, unless they’re deeply unpopular, in France it is almost unheard of and Macron joins a select group of three in becoming a sitting president who has been re-elected for a second term (Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac being the other two). Macron is not popular, it has to be said. He is seen as arrogant and, though he started well when he was elected back in 2017, the perception is that he has become more distant and less interested in the concerns of the populace as time has gone on. It is said that the French start to hate their presidents the day after they elect them and there’s a lot of truth in that. This is why it is so hard for a sitting president to get re-elected and the fact that Macron was able to get across the line shows that the anti-Le Pen feeling was running high. There is a feeling, among many French people that I have spoken to, that the vote would change little; that it was a choice between right and far-right, and that their vote would make no difference, so why bother to cast it, especially on a day that was fairly wet across the whole country. The fact that enough did turn out to prevent Le Pen from being elected is something we have to take as a positive. Macron will now need to act on the concerns that saw Le Pen get a large part of that diminished vote if he is to see off the potential threat from the populists. He has promised to be “a president for all France”, so it will be interesting to see what he does in the coming weeks.
The next big political event here will be the Assembly elections in June. This will be when the new government will be formed and Macron will need to choose his ministers wisely. They’re likely to come from a range of his opposition parties, not least because his own En Marche party will be unlikely to enjoy the support it got following his first election. Ecosocialist candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is expected to make a bid to become Prime Minister and he could well make a good choice for Macron if he is looking to recover some popularity with younger voters. It has been fun trying to get to grips with French politics and the many ways it differs from those in the UK. I look forward to the next elections with renewed interest and I’ll try, as ever, to let our readers know what I think is going on over here!
And so, as ever, to la musique. What has been helping me make it through the night while we contemplated the possibility of having escaped one right-wing nutter only to end up in the clutches of another! Well, to start off with I’ve been learning about veteran French chanteur, Eddy Mitchell, or Claude Moine, as he was christened. He adopted the name Eddy Mitchell simply because he thought it sounded typically American which, back in the late 50s, when he started his singing career, was considered important. I guess it was a fashion thing at the time, since Mitchell sings almost exclusively in French and is, quite clearly, a Frenchman. I was particularly taken by the name of his first band, Les Chaussettes Noires, or The Black Socks, but he split from them in 1963 and moved away from recording in France, going first to London to record (where he was backed by, among others, Big Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page) and then heading further afield to Memphis and Nashville, where he would work with the likes of David Briggs, Leland Sklar, Steve Cropper, Roger Hawkins and a host of other top rated session players. Mitchell has just released his thirty-ninth studio recording, the album “Country Rock”. Don’t be fooled by the title, as it really doesn’t contain very much of either. Mitchell remains resolutely French, regardless of his American connections and slight nods towards different genres of music but I’ve grown to like his lived-in voice, which could almost be described as a French Johnny Cash, if you can imagine such a thing. ‘Droite dans ses Bottes’ (Straight in his Boots) is from his new album and does have a bit of an Americana vibe about it.
Nolwenn Leroy is a French singer-songwriter who is classically trained (violin and Opera singing) and appears to be equally at home singing in French, English, Breton and Irish! She has a stunning voice, as you can hear on the duet I’ve featured here, singing ‘Woman of Ireland’ with Andrea Corr. She also does a very beautiful version of ‘Scarborough Fair’, which is well worth seeking out but, like a lot of French musicians, she works across a range of styles and genres in such a way that she’s almost impossible to pin down as a singer. You’ll find excellent cover versions of songs like ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’, as well as many of her own songs that vary between quite haunting ballads and some of the jauntiest Euro-pop you could hope (or more likely not hope) to hear. It’s something I find a bit frustrating with French musicians because, while it’s laudable that they can embrace so many different musical styles, it’s really hard to get a sense of their personality as a performer. Listening to Nolwenn Leroy you can imagine her voice sitting well on a range of Americana songs and being particularly well suited to the Laural Canyon sound, yet so much of her material strays into the easy listening, soft/pop-rock that seems popular with French radio stations, that it’s easy to understand how she’s not more widely appreciated outside her native France. Of course, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t concentrate on her home market and sing the material she wants to sing. It would just be nice for more people to discover what I think is a beautiful voice.
Finally, back on more familiar ground, I recently treated myself to Bela Fleck’s rightly award-winning album “My Bluegrass Heart”. What a fantastic album this is, full of great tunes and truly outstanding musicianship. Exactly what was needed to keep the blues at bay over a difficult month. Thankfully, all has ended well. À bientôt.
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