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The Jungle

How to Spend an Election Sunday

On Paris.


When Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission was published in 2015, it quickly became the subject of a controversy that never really was settled. The book presents a strange political coalition in the 2022 French presidential elections: the Socialists ally with the Muslim Brotherhood, knowing that there is no other way to defeat Marine Le Pen and the National Front at the ballot box. Respectable people find that they ultimately prefer a Islamist leader to a right-wing nativist, a political evolution that since the book’s publication Houellebecq has defended as “realistic” (even if his timeline is overly condensed). In the real 2022 elections, however, the anti-Le Pen coalition rallied around incumbent President Emmanuel Macron. And instead of an Islamist shift, Macron himself moved far to the right on issues of immigration and integration—perhaps undercutting Houellebecq’s and many others’ prognostications. I spent the day of the elections in Saint-Denis, a heavily Muslim northern suburb of Paris, and found not a revolution, but a general apathy about France’s political landscape.

Saint-Denis has a bad reputation and is normally in the running for the highest crime rate in France (often in the first position). It has also become synonymous with France’s immigration problems and is where some say a new France is being born. It is largely populated by immigrants and children of immigrants, particularly from Africa and the Middle East. Given the heated rhetoric around immigration in French politics, it seemed like an interesting place this April to spend election day for France’s presidential runoff between Macron and Le Pen. Macron evidently had the same idea and visited the area several days before the election, which resulted in a photo op where he put on boxing gloves and sparred with a local boxing instructor. Macron was targeting areas that voted for far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon to prevent them from switching to the far-right Le Pen or staying home. Mélenchon got about sixty percent of the vote in Saint-Denis in the election’s first round to Macron’s sixteen percent. Macron’s visit must have paid off: he got nearly eighty percent in the second round to Le Pen’s twenty-one percent.

While Saint-Denis may be the birthplace of a new France, it is also where an older France is buried. Two days before the election, I visited the Basilica of Saint-Denis, a symbol of all that France once was before the revolution. It is a stunning building, and it gets its name from a third-century saint who was said to be decapitated in nearby Montmartre when the persecution of Christians was still common in the Roman Empire. According to legend, after his martyrdom Saint Denis picked up his severed head and walked to the site of the current cathedral, where he was buried. His head preached
all along the way. A headless statue stands over the altar of the church today. Equally interesting to a modern visitor of the Basilica of Saint-Denis are the numerous tombs of French monarchs in the church. This was their traditional resting place, but revolutionary fervor brought an end to both the monarchy and the peaceful repose of its kings and queens. The remains of a large number of kings and queens were removed in 1793 and dumped in a mass grave. It was only in 1815, after the monarchy was restored, that some were returned to the church, and the ashes of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were placed in a crypt beneath the altar, along with a statue of them praying upstairs. The monarchy ended for good in 1848, but this monument to the kings and queens of France remains.

On election day, the basilica was nearly full, with seven or eight hundred visitors. At least twothirds were black, presumably both immigrants and the children of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as French citizens from France’s overseas territories. Mass was predictably, pleasantly overwhelming and solemn. Organist, cantor, and choir were all exquisite. It was the Sunday after Easter, and both the reading and the homily were on Doubting Thomas. Blessings were given to the three newest (young) adult Catholics of SaintDenis, baptized the week before at the Easter Vigil. During the announcements, there was a reminder of the duty to vote, but that was the only politics that entered the church. Outside the church, the market was busy. It looked like a scene straight out of the Middle East, where electronic gadgets and Islamic headscarves are sold alongside local produce and meat. One seller yelled out that his produce was a gift from Allah. Syrian women implored their fellow Muslims to support them for the sake of Allah. Young men hawked Marlboros, a code, or at least an opening, for more illicit vices, I was assured by a resident.

The visitor to Saint-Denis can survey all this and easily draw whatever narrative he wishes. You can look and see a multiethnic France where people come from all over to both integrate with their French neighbors and bring something new. On the square outside the basilica, sidewalk cafés serve Moroccan couscous and pints of French beer. In the morning, the standard formule of French breakfast is served with a croissant, a coffee, and an orange juice, just as anywhere else in the capital city. Outside the adjacent hôtel de ville, city hall, fly the French, EU, and Ukrainian flags. McDonald’s serves a Bacon Big Tasty (my lunch choice for election day) even in these supposedly sharia no-go zones, as they’re sometimes described in some corners of the media.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for evidence of an immigrant invasion bringing intolerance and crime, you can find that as well. After the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015, a raid in Saint-Denis resulted in the arrest of eight and the death of two of attack’s plotters. It surprised few that they chose to hide out in Saint-Denis. The insular intellectual life that leads to sectarianism is easily apparent. I visited three Arabic bookstores in the neighborhood and didn’t find a single secular book. Instead, there were only Arabic books on Islam and French translations of Arabic books on Islam. An equivalent bookstore in the Middle East would normally feature a healthy selection of Islamic tracts alongside Arabic and translated novels of all stripes, often secular and scandalous. For those kinds of books, one must visit the hip, exclusively Francophone bookstore near the basilica, where the novels of Houellebecq exploring the suicide of French civilization sit alongside a healthy selection of socialist tracts examining racism in French society. I bought a book-length essay by novelist François Bégaudeau in which he spends the one hundred ten pages of Comment s’occuper un
dimanche d’élection
(How to Spend an Election Sunday) explaining why his decision not to vote is a political act. It is a book that could really only be written and read in France and is the type of book that makes most people hate reading philosophy or criticism.

After a croissant and coffee next to the basilica after Mass in a café where some had already started drinking white wine, I began to wander the streets of election-day Saint-Denis. I struck up conversations with as many people as I could. There were few tangible threads running through these conversations. Many people were not able to vote, and had little to share on the elections. A Moroccan woman named Aisha, probably in her sixties, expressed some concern about Le Pen’s proposed ban on the Islamic headscarf, the hijab, which she wore. She said her two daughters don’t wear the scarf, nor do her granddaughters (two of her sons are married to French women, two others are still in Morocco). It’s hard for an old lady to change, though, she said, tugging at her headscarf, and the government should focus on those who cause problems, rather than concerning themselves with what people wear. She wasn’t eligible to vote but is working on getting her French citizenship. Her son proudly took a selfie with Macron when he visited Saint-Denis. A Moroccan butcher told me that both Islam and democracy are about living together and that in Saint-Denis there are people of all religions and countries, and they learn how to live together. An Algerian retiree, who voted Macron because Le Pen is vulgar and provocative, lamented that divorce was too common in France and that social support should be in the form of goods, not cash that people can spend on drugs, because welfare has led to social problems.

I made my way to a large park, Parc de la Légion d’Honneur. I found a white French woman sitting by herself on a bench. She was in her sixties and a native of Saint-Denis. She wouldn’t say who she voted for but said Le Pen had a point about Europe’s inability to control its own situation. Later, two separate Muslim families said they were Spanish citizens, not French, and therefore had no opinion on the elections. I had struggled to find many voters willing to chat, or really to find many voters—most people said they were “still working on their papers”—when I saw a group of three older men walking towards me. I sized them up to be Arabic speakers and said in Arabic that they must surely speak Arabic. Not at all, one replied adamantly in French. We are Amazighs. He switched to English to say he had proudly voted for Le Pen because she needs to get Islam out of the country. He raised his voice and said, “Vive Le Pen.” A man walked by, shouting, “Vive Macron!” He pulled out a slip of paper reading “Marine Le Pen,” to prove he had voted Macron. (When voting, people are given two slips of paper with each candidate’s name, and they put their preferred candidate’s name into an envelope and discard, or keep, the other candidate’s paper.)

I walked a decent distance to reach the Grand Mosque of Imam Malek. The gate was closed, and I walked back toward the city center. On the way, I came upon a large cemetery and walked inside out of interest. Every grave I saw had a cross and most had a stereotypically French name. Most were from the twentieth century, but some were more recent. I saw the military section and walked past rows of World War I, then World War II, graves. Interestingly, given the current makeup of the neighborhood, a prominent section honored veterans of the wars in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, recently acknowledged by Macron to have consisted of war crimes against the local populations. A row of graves was overshadowed by a plaque: Morts pour la France. Died for France. I wondered whether many Algerians ever walked by this section of the cemetery and what they thought when they did.

I continued on to the hôtel de ville, where people were busy voting. A French journalist was interviewing voters outside as they left. I explained that I was a journalist covering the elections, and the official in charge, Madame La Présidente as she was introduced to me, said I could take pictures but not interview anyone inside the polling place itself. I duly obliged and snapped a few photos. I was followed in by a French television crew, who filmed people as they received their ballots. Outside, they tried—seemingly unsuccessfully—to get patrons of the neighboring café to share their opinions on camera.

In the evening, I looked for the place where I would watch the election results. Throughout the day, I had made note of a few places that looked promising. As I walked back along the still crowded, but slowly thinning, Rue de la République, a man sprinted by me, followed shortly behind by three police officers. Two of the officers got in a waiting SUV, which turned on its lights but no siren, and sped away. I walked in the general direction of the commotion and eventually came across the man, back against the corner, with six police officers surrounding him. He was saying in broken English, “No problem, no problem.” I walked past, and the few other bystanders lingered around, staring.

I thought about settling in at one of the nice sidewalk cafés on the square outside the basilica and hôtel de ville. A few other hip-looking cafés are dotted throughout the surrounding neighborhood, but I wanted to watch somewhere with Arabic speakers. At about 7:15 P.M., I walked into a bar playing sad Algerian music. I was hoping I may have found my spot, but there was not even a TV in the place from what I could tell. The older gentleman behind the bar served me a Heineken, then fell asleep with his head resting on his palm. A young man in his twenties was eating couscous with red meat, and another man stood at the bar drinking a beer. They both occasionally sang along to the music. A woman then emerged from behind the bar, and the man asked her in French about when the iftar began, to break the Ramadan fast. She said she didn’t know and that she wasn’t a practicing Muslim. As he stood drinking his beer, I don’t think he was asking for himself. I thought about asking them about the election but hated to ruin the tranquil atmosphere with talk of politics. Instead, I quickly finished my beer and continued my search.

There is a great suspense to the announcement of the election results in France. Because a number of polling places close at 7:00 P.M., an initial tally is made between 7:00 and 8:00 P.M., when polls close in bigger cities like Paris. There is a dramatic countdown resembling New Year’s Eve, and finally, at 8:00 P.M. exactly, a picture of the estimated winner takes up the whole screen. Just before the announcement, at about 7:45 P.M., I walked into a small restaurant and bar not far from the basilica. The TV wasn’t on, so I asked the bartender if they were going to put on the results. “Ah oui. Mais c’est Macron, c’est officiel,” he said nonchalantly, as he had another guy find the remote and change the channel. It’s Macron, it’s official. He didn’t seem happy or sad, just acknowledging a reality.

Besides myself, there were four other people in the bar: the bartender, another helper or employee of some sort, and two customers. It turned out they were all ethnic Amazigh, or Berbers, from Algeria. The conversation switched between my mediocre French and their mediocre Arabic. One customer couldn’t speak any Arabic, while the bartender spoke quite well. Amongst themselves, they spoke in Amazigh with plenty of French mixed in. They talked about how since the arrival of Islam, Arabic had been forced upon them. The bartender, however, seemed quite comfortable in Arabic and frequently switched the conversation back from French, perhaps sensing that I too was more comfortable in Arabic. He said that despite the problems in a place like Saint-Denis, the situation is much better than in Algeria, where there is no political freedom.

As expected, the countdown to the results ended in a large picture of Macron on the screen, with the initial estimate of just over fifty-seven percent of the vote. The bartender had guessed fifty-eight or fifty-nine just before the announcement, and I was glad we didn’t bet because I would have lost; I said Macron would win with fifty-three percent. To no one’s surprise, Emmanuel Macron overwhelmingly won the vote in Saint-Denis, though his victory was a slight decrease from his total in 2017. Perhaps more notable is the shift in the first round, where Mélenchon increased his support in Saint-Denis by about twenty percent from 2017 to 2022. That those voters went for Macron in the second round only shows that between him and Le Pen, he was the lesser of two evils.

But we didn’t know any of this yet, sitting in the bar and chatting about the result. The conversation mostly switched to Algeria, the situation there, and how I learned Arabic. One of the customers, the most drunk of the lot, insisted that I must actually work for the U.S. government if I speak Arabic. I told him I used to work, briefly, as an interpreter for the U.S. military, but now write for a living. He didn’t believe me, but I assured him that Uncle Sam had little interest in what was being said in this bar. The TV turned to Macron’s victory speech in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. They started pouring me free beers and the level of conversation went downhill. I finally paid my bill (for much less than the beer I had drunk) and ducked out, making my way back to the Metro and promising to stop in again next time I’m around. The streets of Saint Denis were quiet as I left.

Samuel Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, and many other publications.

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