On the French presidential election and suiting up

22 May 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 22 May 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
Question: My son has suddenly started speaking only in French all the time. He says things like “Yolo” and keeps talking about somebody called Le Mao. What’s so interesting about the French?

I think your son is saying LMAO. But I recently found myself in the peculiar situation where I actually cared about the French presidential election, which hasn’t happened for me since Louis-Napoleon won in 1848. In those long-ago times, election catchphrases were very long-winded and Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew ran with the phrase: “Religion, the family, property, the eternal basis of all social order”. His opponents thought he was ridiculous and called him “a turkey who thinks he is an eagle” (Trump is not the first ridiculous man to have been underestimated). Louis-Napoleon won with 74% of the votes and then staged a coup, cancelled all further elections and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. Although it can take decades to fight for a democracy, it can be wiped away overnight. And few people have fought harder for democracy than the French, even though they have always had an uneasy relationship with it. After all, Louis-Napoleon was clearly itching to proclaim himself emperor and yet he still won 74% of their votes. Before the result of this recent presidential election was announced, I went to bed in a state of anxiety but woke up with a sigh of relief when I discovered that a young centrist had beaten a fascist. The news, both foreign and domestic, has been very depressing for anybody with a liberal outlook but France has briefly offered a ray of sunshine. I celebrated by eating some stinky French cheese.

There is going to be a general election in Britain and their prime minister has come up with a catchphrase that appears to be mesmerising the electorate. The catchphrase is shorter than Louis-Napoleon’s but otherwise much the same. She is promising a “strong and stable” government if people vote for her ruling Conservative Party. I find the promise of a “strong and stable” government to have a chilling whiff of authoritarianism, and as a Malaysian, I think I know what I’m talking about, but Theresa May is probably going to have a landslide victory. People will naturally want to run into the arms of strength and stability in times of trauma, whether imagined or real. Right now, Britain is going through its Brexit trauma and will probably turn to the Conservative Party, even though it was the one that created the needless trauma in the first place. The catchphrase is so vague that when she does win, it will be extremely easy to project an image of strength and stability in a country that is already basically strong and stable. All she has to do is turn up to work looking smart.

I suspect that governments around the world will be repeating the strong and stable catchphrase when they next face the inconvenience of an election because it is a great way to win one. Create a crisis and then promise to fix it. But how do you create a good crisis? It must have a strong emotional appeal but, ideally, it must not actually exist. The best thing is to do is to frighten people into thinking that their culture, religion and way of life is under threat. Whip people up into a frenzy of fear over an imagined enemy within, then let clever gerrymandering and a lot of cash do the rest. And when you win, you don’t have to do anything about solving the crisis because there was never a crisis in the first place.

Napoleon III ruled France as Emperor for 20 years, but he made the unfortunate mistake of creating a very real crisis instead of a fake one. In 1870, he chose to start a war and the French army was completely crushed. He had to abdicate and ended his days as an exile in England. The moral of the story is — don’t pick a fight with Germany. Also, despite being defeated, France still exists. France is still France. It may not be ruled by a Napoleonic dynasty but it is still full of French people doing French things. Despite the trauma of war and defeat, the rule of kings, emperors and three different types of republic, the soul and genius of a nation can endure regardless. And on this occasion, I am very thankful that they did not elect a fascist.

Dear Kam,
My father always insists that I wear a suit and tie because he wants me to look smart. But I’m a girl.

I really don’t care about British politics but there is one aspect of the upcoming election that intrigues and annoys me. The leader of the opposition Labour Party refuses to wear a tie and his suits are awful. Why won’t Jeremy Corbyn wear a tie and why does that bother me?

It must be that the oldest and deepest human reflex is to judge other people by how they look. We can’t help it because we want to know if the unknown person is safe and trustworthy or potentially dangerous. Wearing a suit and tie is as natural or unnatural as wearing a sarong or a saree but it has become the expected uniform for a Western politician. And yet Jeremy Corbyn refuses to play by those rules.

It must be that Corbyn wants to give the impression that he is a regular working class guy who cares about their concerns and he hasn’t got time for fancy expensive suits. Unfortunately, in post-industrial Britain, the traditional working class is a shrinking base and if I can judge by old photos of my English grandfather, even the working class like to dress smartly when they need to. Corbyn looks like a music teacher who is trying way too hard to be cool with the students and not like a man who can be trusted with highest office in the land. Not wearing a tie gives a bizarre impression. It’s a wasted opportunity and therefore it really annoys me.

Reprinted with the kind permission of