Last weekend we returned to The Barn for a couple of days’ respite and a birthday – exhausted after several days spent hoiking heavy oak rafters up onto the roof of the barn conversion we are working on – with a presidential election thrown in for good measure.
I am often treated to a general election on my birthday. At least, in my opinion, the French electorate have given me a more promising gift than my compatriots did in 2010… While we lounged around enjoying a day off from the timber framing site and an excuse to eat lots of delicious food – starting with champagne for breakfast, naturally – the country waited with bated breath to find out if Sarkozy would stay or go.
After a nail-biting day, the Parti Socialiste triumphed and scenes at the Place de la Bastille in Paris were jubilant. There are echoes here of 1997 in the UK, when Labour were cheered in to the theme tune ‘things can only get better’. Indeed. They could hardly have got worse.
François Hollande has not delivered the landslide that Tony Blair did in 1997 though. With 51.7% of the vote he has a definitive victory but after 17 years of right-wing government, Sarkozy still raked in a respectable 48.3%. No doubt there were a good few of Marine Le Pen’s far right Front National supporters among the Sarkozy vote, as he did his best to tempt them with anti-immigration and nationalistic offerings during his campaign.
The far right has a respectable face here that its extremist cousins in the UK would give their left arms for. (Right arms are, presumably, indispensable). I learned yesterday from our friend Mireille, that of the hundred or so people in our commune of Cercles who voted in the first round two weeks ago, 42 put a cross against ‘Front National’. Gasp. Mireille was one of two who voted Écologiste and is now on a mission to unearth the other person.
So although Dordogne is broadly ‘pink’ in colour, it seems there are pockets of dark blue. We should not be surprised. I have heard some locals making casual racist remarks about Arabs, although they have rarely if ever met people of North African heritage. And people do joke about the English ‘invasion’ as well. Yet there is more to this vote than at first appears. It cannot simply be explained away as ‘racist’. There is also, I believe, a strong protest element. A historic sense of battling against central authority and the ‘bourgeois’ powers in Paris unfortunately makes Le Pen’s ‘outsider’ Front National an appealing prospect.
First round votes for Hollande in Cercles (23%) were below the national average (29%), but Sarkozy’s innings (16%) were tiny compared to his national vote (27%). In Sunday’s final round, our commune’s voters opted decisively for Socialist Hollande (48%), not right-wing Sarkozy (38%).
These people have welcomed us, strangers in their midst, so hospitably. They tell us where to find the best car mechanic; how to make a perfect omelette; help us deal with the planning system. There is a strong local local culture here, of hospitality, language, gastronomy and countryside knowledge, which feels under threat from outside influence. Wrongly or rightly, there are some local people who clearly feel their voice is heard by Madame ‘Bleu Marine’ (Mrs Navy Blue) and her Front National.
On a sweeter note, with the welcome reappearance of the great yellow sphere in the sky, our inherited asparagus bed has flourished among the long grass, with its soldierly spears poking up between bramble shoots. Of course our neighbour Daniel, who was born in La Rambaudie, could easily have kept quiet about the hidden asparagus bed and helped himself. But he has the traditional sense of ‘terroir’ and respect, above almost anything else, for the land and who owns it.
According to Daniel the bed has been there for at least 20 years and just keeps on giving (most gardeners estimate the productive life of a bed at 10 or 15 years). His father ‘le Père Lasfort’, who passed away in early February during the cold snap, insisted that it had been there for 50 years, but I think his memory was hazy. The asparagus, despite its longevity, has spears so tender that we crunch them raw, dipped in vinaigrette.
And the secret of a perfect omelette according to Marie-Claire, Daniel’s wife? Add butter to the egg. Make sure the pan is very, very hot before you put in the beaten egg, with smoke vapour rising from a little olive oil, so that the egg bubbles up vigorously. Add freshly harvested asparagus spears and hey presto – a divine birthday treat.