Tuesday was Bastille Day, a more subdued occasion than in most years. There were no big firework displays, either in Paris or here in Poitiers. The usual grandiose military parade in Paris was redesigned to celebrate heroes of the coronavirus pandemic. Ambulance drivers, supermarket cashiers, postal workers, and medics were all honoured at the scaled-back event.
In his address to the nation, President Macron announced a recovery plan for the economy which will include ‘at least 100 billion euros’ in addition to the 460 billion already committed to economic support since the start of the epidemic. The previous evening, the government had announced a significant agreement with trade unions which will see the wages of health workers rise by €183 a month on average (a more tangible benefit than being clapped at every evening).
Here in Poitiers in the main square, there was the usual display of troops, gendarmes, firefighters, and ambulance workers. The presentations of medals, presumably now all long-service awards, took place in the presence of the new mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, and a sprinkling of civil and military dignitaries. As in previous years, the brass band seemed to be playing La Marseillaise every ten minutes but, perhaps in acknowledgement of the new regime, they ended with a surprisingly effective rendition of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’.
Wandering around to take some photos, I found a good spot behind a barrier near the stage. On the other side of the barrier, a woman in uniform with a camera, clearly some sort of army PR person, had noticed the same vantage point and started to walk towards me, smiling. I assumed that she was acknowledging that she was about to pinch my viewpoint and, accepting that she had her job to do, I smiled back and shrugged. She then proceeded to nod her head from side to side several times and enlarged her smile into a large Joker-like grin. I thought this was a bit weird, but nonetheless, a little self-consciously, I nodded my own head back at her. At this point she raised her hand to her face and blew a kiss towards me. I thought this was really too much, and I was about to say something offensive when I suddenly felt something brush against my leg. Looking down, I saw a little girl, about four years old, who had obviously been the intended recipient of all the photographer’s gestures. I slipped away quietly.
On Thursday we went to the first public meeting of Poitiers Collectif since their stunning victory in the municipal elections. It was a very warm evening, and two hours of sitting, wearing a mask, in a room without air-conditioning was not much fun. The meeting was fairly inconsequential. Various members of the Collectif spoke and promised us consultations, petitions, focus groups, awareness sessions, and the like. One sensed that the audience was a little underwhelmed. Still, the speakers all seem very nice and enthusiastic, and these are early days.
There was a question-and-answer session at the end. The mayor, Madame Moncond’huy, listened politely while a couple of people complained about parking restrictions and refuse collections. I was close to nodding off when I suddenly heard a voice at the back that I thought I recognised. I looked round and, sure enough, there was Mr Twomey, up on his feet.
I hadn’t heard from him since our strange phone conversation a couple of weeks ago. Despite the warm room, he was wearing the fawn raincoat he always seems to be in, and he was sweating profusely. Next to him was a small, red-faced woman in her fifties whom I didn’t recognise. Both of them had moved their masks to the tops of their heads, despite sitting right next to a sign clearly stating that masks should be worn.
It took a while to tune in – Twomey’s French is not much better than mine and he’d clearly had a few drinks – but I gradually understood that he was complaining about the lack of public conveniences in Poitiers and going into rather too much detail about the number of times this had forced him to take emergency measures. He then made a very poor joke about Madame Moncond’huy’s name (it’s pronounced ‘Mon Con Dwee’) and the phrase ‘men can’t wee’, which he seemed to think highly amusing. Luckily, nobody in the room seemed to understand a word of it.
I could see one or two of the security staff exchanging glances and edging towards him, and I feared there might be an embarrassing incident. Fortunately. at this point, the red-faced woman hissed loudly, ‘Shut up, you eejit’ and yanked at his raincoat, forcing him to fall back into his seat with a silly grin on his face. The mayor made no attempt to respond to his remarks and immediately took the opportunity to thank us all and close the meeting.
Madame S and I left quickly in case Twomey spotted us. I didn’t want anyone there to connect us in any way. I resolved to make contact with him at some stage in the near future to find out who this woman is (he has never mentioned any sort of relationship) and what exactly is going on in his life at the moment. I thought it better not to tell Madame of this plan.