Since the Green party, Poitiers Collectif, won the elections in June, the municipal council in Poitiers has been rather quiet. This is fair enough, I suppose; the symbolic first hundred days will not have been completed for a couple of weeks yet. They are in power for the next six years, and it’s reasonable for a new council to take stock before launching on any major new strategies. Obviously, having Covid-19 to deal with will have made their job significantly more difficult.
Nevertheless, in presentational terms it seems a little unfortunate that in our local paper, Le Nouvelle République, the first significant story to feature the new mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, is rather a negative one. It relates to the announcement that there will not be a traditional Christmas tree in the town’s main square this year. The reason given is that building work on the old theatre in the corner of the square is limiting the space available. As well as the tree, there is no room for the Ferris wheel which has been a major attraction in the last two years. Pierre-Marie Moreau, the president of the local chamber of commerce, has confirmed that technical reasons relating to the building work make it too difficult to install the wheel.
Both Madame Moncond’huy and Monsieur Moreau have promised that there will be a number of smaller trees around the city centre, along with food markets, designer markets, concerts, and street shows.
All of this seems fairly innocuous stuff, but a little cloud has appeared on the horizon for Madame Moncond’huy. Pierre Hurmic, the new mayor of Bordeaux and also a Green, has announced that they too will not be having a Christmas tree. However, Monsieur Hurmic has made it clear that this decision is based firmly on ecological grounds, saying that ‘a dead Christmas tree’ does not fit with his party’s green strategy, and that by the end of 2020 he wants to adopt a ‘charter of tree rights’ protecting trees in urban areas. His decision has been attacked by many, most noticeably by members of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). Madame Le Pen herself has joined in, declaring that talk of a ‘dead tree’ shows that the Greens have ‘a visceral rejection of everything that makes up our country, our traditions, our culture’.
Now, in our own department, Vienne, Arnaud Fage, the only RN member of the departmental assembly, has accused Madame Moncond’huy of using the theatre building works as a pretext for carrying out a Green policy and demanded that a tree be placed in the main square to ensure that ‘our traditions are respected’.
All of this is good knockabout stuff. In many ways it reminds me of Gabriel Chevallier’s satirical novel Clochemerle. Set in a small town in pre-war France, the book describes the battle between Catholics and Republicans on the town council over the building of a public lavatory next to the church.
In all likelihood, the Christmas entertainments planned for Poitiers will be a great success and the row over the tree will be quickly forgotten. After all, the Poitiers Collectif are at the very beginning of their period of office, with the next elections not due until June 2026. But I can’t help wondering how much of an effect this little spat would have had if the elections were due to be held next January, rather than last June. Seemingly trivial things, the sort that Harold Macmillan described as ‘events, dear boy, events’, can often have a significant effect on public opinion.
The clearest example of this that I can think of is the UK general election of 1970, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives surprisingly defeated Harold Wilson’s Labour government. When Wilson called the election in May of that year, Labour was holding a 7.5 per cent lead in the Gallup poll after doing well in the local elections earlier that month. However on election day, June 18,Labour lost sixty seats and the Conservatives gained sixty-five, giving an overall Tory majority of thirty-one. Many members of the outgoing government were convinced that their defeat was strongly influenced by England’s sudden and unexpected quarter-final defeat by West Germany in the World Cup in Mexico, just four days before the poll.
Wilson was dismissive of any Mexican connection – ‘governance of a country has nothing to do with a study of its football fixtures’ – but years later, in his memoirs, Denis Healey revealed that as early as that April the prime minister had called a strategy meeting at Chequers ‘in which Harold asked us to consider whether the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day’. Tony Crosland, then local government minister and later foreign secretary, blamed the defeat ‘on a mix of party complacency and the disgruntled Match of the Day millions’. Wilson’s minister of sport, Denis Howell, was in no doubt that ‘the moment goalkeeper Bonetti made his third and final hash of it on the Sunday, everything simultaneously began to go wrong for Labour for the following Thursday’. According to Howell, on the Monday morning before the election, he and home secretary Roy Jenkins were at a factory-gate meeting in Birmingham: ‘Roy was totally bemused that no question concerned either trade figures or immigration, but solely the football and whether manager Ramsey or Bonetti was the major culprit.’
Perhaps ominously for Poitiers Collectif, 2026 is a World Cup year. I imagine Madame Moncond’huy will be leading the singing of ‘Allez les Bleus!’ from the town hall steps.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the Battle of Poitiers (1346). In the Café des Arts on Friday evening, Madame S, in a whimsical mood after her third brandy and Baileys, suggested shinning up the statue of Joan of Arc in Rue des Cordeliers and draping a Union Jack on Joan’s head. I managed to persuade her out of this by explaining that any passing social media aficionado might take a snap, which, if made public, would be unlikely to help her French citizenship application. I also realised that the act would entail me giving her a piggy-back to get up high enough to reach the statue– a manoeuvre too awful to contemplate.
Quote of the week: ‘He’s enormously, enormously vigorous.’ – Matt Hancock on Boris Johnson during an interview with Times Radio on Friday.