14 March 2010

Leftist thoughts

There are two big news items getting a lot of play in the French media today. The first is the death of singer Jean Ferrat. He has been called the fourth great French-language singer of the post-war period, along with Jaques Brel, Georges Brassens, and Léo Ferré. I'm not sure any of these men are well-known in America, with the exception of Brel.

Jean Ferrat was committed to leftwing causes, and many his songs were political. His sympathies lay with the French Communist Party, but he never became a card-carrying member. He sang songs with lyrics written by the French Communist poet Louis Aragon.

Ferrat's heyday was the 1960s and the 1970s, until the Soviet Union clamped down on Eastern Europe, occupying Prague in 1968, and then invaded Afghanistan in 1979. A lot of French Communist Party admirers and followers that I knew in Paris back then became deeply disillusioned over that decade — just as a lot of us were deeply disillusioned by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and then Watergate, and then events in Iran, and then, if I dare say, the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House.

One of Ferrat's songs that I remember best from those years was called La Femme est l'avenir de l'homme — "Woman is the future of man" (or should that be mankind?). Ferrat had a deep, fairly melodic voice, and songs like that one had a clear message having to do with both the class struggle and the role of women in society.

I hummed and sang the song as it played on the radio in the mid-70s, when I was studying French and teaching English in Paris. Ferrat was 79 when he died yesterday. His passing is another reminder that French politics and culture have changed radically since that long-ago era (and not necessarily in good ways...).

The other big news item in the French media today is the regional elections being held today. All the polls have been showing the French Socialist Party's slates running slightly ahead of President Sarkozy's UMP party candidates. There is a real chance that all the French regions, 23 of them, will have Socialist-majority councils after the second round of elections in few days.

The regional elections aren't a referendum on Sarkozy's popularity as president, but having his party come in second all around the country is not a good thing for him. It's embarrassing, at the least. Tonight we'll see if the polls have been accurate. A lot depends on voter turnout.


  1. It seems like a lot of people decided not to vote today according to aol France (abstention
    en hausse a mi-journee).

  2. Is it legal to drink on election day in France? It's not, here in the U.S. (well, by that I mean that bars and restaurants can't sell alcohol on election day... at least not on presidential election day).

    I must admit that I had not ever heard of Jean Ferrat, but I've been seeing the news about his death on the Internet quite a bit (of course, only on French-language sites). I wondered, this morning, if you would write about him, and voilà!

    Almost time for your voyage, eh?

    Oh, I made Brownies yesterday, from scratch, and thought of you. The result was quite good. I'm glad that I learned, this year (in my Julia Child readings about how best to make pound cake) about the value of beating your whole eggs over warm water, and about how much more volume you get when they are slightly warm... I had a voluminous batch of eggs when I finished beating!


  3. Really interesting post. I did not know French songs could be so political, yet commercially viable at the same time. I guess the only real political singer we've had in the States was Bob Dylan; perhaps Joan Baez, too.

    Yes, I was disillusioned by all those events in US politics as well. At least French politics stand for people and not corporations (at least that is my perception from afar). To top it off my family lived in Iran before the Revolution of 1979, and we heard from Iranian friends that the Shah had been put in place by the CIA. Interesting to find out it was true so many years later.

  4. I've heard of all those guys (we purchased a CD which has all of them and a few more), but not Ferrat.

  5. Hi Nadège, yes the abstention rate was very high -- in other words, turnout was at record low levels. Sarkozy's party finished lower than it ever has in regional elections. The second round of voting will be interesting. The result will depend on which side can get out more votes.

    Hi Judy, I think it might be illegal NOT to drink on election day in France! And yes, my trip is coming up. Good for you on the brownies.

    Hello Diogenes, the chanson engagée is a major feature in French culture, and political songs are often very big hits.

  6. @Diogenes
    French politicians do not stand for people. In reality, the gap is growing between them and the population. That is one of the reason why the abstention rate has been so high.

    Honestly, what politician could not be categorized as socialist in France? From Besancenot to LePen, nobody will ever question the welfare state, our "acquis sociaux que le monde entier nous envie". Even if Sarkozy has been categorized as a right-wing guy, one might wonder about "l'ouverture" or about this other singer who married him...

    Anyway, keep up the good work, your blog is very interesting!


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