The Play’s the Thing…

France faces a crisis of identity.

Since President Hollande, amid the Socialist resurgence that catapulted him to power, things have badly boomeranged. His manic determination to bring back the Socialist dogma of bleeding the rich by imposing a punitive seventy-five per cent tax has driven a lot of his countrymen abroad. In total dismay, they now fear that their beloved France is currently in the hands of an administration out of tune with economic realities, which can only lead to a worsening recession, and inflict a potentially mortal blow to the aspirations of most of its citizens.

There is gloom and discontent wherever one goes. Smiles are no longer to be seen; even the buoyancy of Paris is rarely visible. The president’s approval rating has sharply declined to below the twenty per cent mark – a record low. The figures reflect the French president’s global reputation as a joke, more interested in his complex love life, while unemployment soars to 11.1 per cent, its highest this century.

At twenty-one months into Hollande’s presidency, the TNS poll for Le Figaro magazine interviewed one thousand people and shows his approval rating running at nineteen per cent – down three percentage points from January. That was the month his affair with Julie Gayet was revealed causing a split from his first lady, Valérie Trierweiler. Nicholas Sarkozy, his predecessor, was at thirty-seven per cent at this stage, while Jacques Chirac was at thirty-five per cent.

In London, on Bastille Day, four lonely French people are spending the evening in a bistro in the heart of the capital. One left France to escape high taxes, a second quit in disgust at the country’s moral decline, a third moved after failing to obtain a loan to open a restaurant at home, and the fourth came for love. Deep down, all are yearning for Paris, the American dream of paradise, wondering what they are doing in a land of muffins and umbrellas. Their heartache and desolation is the central theme of L’Appel de Londres, a new play that opened in Paris recently. It is a vivid expression of dubiety and the lure of Britain.

About three hundred thousand French people live in the UK, sixty per cent of them in the capital. The number is likely to increase, judging by a recent survey that found seventy-five per cent of French students would consider moving abroad on the completion of their studies. France is facing record unemployment of 3.56 million and deepening disenchantment and gloom; it is in fact the most pessimistic nation in Europe, according to recent polls.

‘I am struck at how joyful people are in London,’ said Philippe Lellouche, the celebrity playwright who wrote and stars in L’Appel de Londres. ‘Everyone seems to be laughing. In Paris no one laughs any more. There is an absolute temptation for the French to move to Britain to look for work or to find a more friendly tax regime,’ he said. ‘London is populated with French people who either earn too much or not enough.’

Yet if his head tells him that it is logical for his countrymen to cross the Channel his heart says otherwise. ‘It dismays me to see them leave,’ says Lellouche, who plays alongside Vanessa Demouy, his wife. ‘I think it’s a form of abdication. They are a loss to France.’

Judging by the applause and cheers that greeted the opening night of the play, in the eight-hundred-seat Théâtre du Gymnase, his sentiment is widely shared.

As the characters in La Marseillaise Bistro pine for baguettes and debate whether to return home, the woman who runs it – named Marianne like the allegorical figure who symbolises Republican France – learns that Qatari investors have struck a deal to buy the Eiffel Tower. The sense of shock is such that French citizens, including the four expatriates, decide to subscribe to a fund to prevent the sale.

Lellouche would like the same patriotic spirit to lift the French for real. In practice, however, the signs do not bode well for the country as a whole, and the French will keep moving to London.

President Hollande is destined to obscurity unless he changes tack, acts responsibly, contains the activities of his pudenda and stops the load of tosh his administration keeps churning out. It is utterly degrading for the President of France, who can’t keep his pants up, to be ridiculed in such an undignified manner. Perhaps a rude awakening might do the trick…

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