On Sunday, March 23, as voting in the first round of local elections got under way in France (where I made my home five years ago), I perched my laptop on my knee so my eight-year-old daughter could watch what I think is one of history’s most important films.
It was brief, grainy, heart-stopping footage from a century ago, showing suffragette Emily Davison as she fell beneath the hooves of a King’s horse and secured a place in political and social history. My daughter was, naturally, horrified by the clip and we talked for some time about the place of women in politics; how we have had to fight and struggle for the right to vote and make sure our voices are heard.
Ironically, a few hours later, the sight and sound of another woman in politics sent shivers down my spine.
Under normal circumstances, I’m not a political animal. I’m vaguely interested, like most people. Give me the broadest of brushes and I can generalise an argument with the best of them. I have even joined the odd demonstration, though more for the trip out than because of any burning desire to change the system (hey, when you’re poor and live in Hull, any opportunity to visit London has to be seized upon).
I was among the crowds at the Poll Tax riots, but rather than being one of those getting in the faces of the riot police, I was cheekily chatting up a copper and asking for directions to Harrods… Not the most dedicated demonstrator then.
Spool forward a couple of decades and you find me, eyebrow cocked, watching the subdued drama of the French municipales unfold.
At the centre of it all was Marine Le Pen, articulate, successful and hugely controversial. And – haha! – a woman. Sadly, she is president of the right-wing Front National, whose beliefs are about as far away from my own woolly, liberal-minded thinking as it’s possible to get.
Le Pen has always vaguely reminded me of War, one of the characters featured in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s book Good Omens. Although Le Pen doesn’t have War’s flaming red hair, sensual figure or bullets for teeth, she does have a look of someone spoiling for a fight – now more than ever.
I watched – morbidly fascinated – as, during debate after debate, she shook her head patronisingly, or grinned smugly at her fellow politicians, quietly, obviously delighted that the FN was inching ever closer to wielding some real power. Far from being proud that a woman had come so far and achieved so much, it scares the shit out of me.
The groundswell of support the FN has seen is worrying. I’m an immigrant here in France – completely legal, may I add, but an immigrant nonetheless – and have no ability to vote in my adoptive country. Yet.
That will change when I jump through a few bureaucratic hoops, but jump through them I will, and I’ll be happy to do so, because without the sacrifices of women like Emily Davison, I’d presumably still be trapped in the kitchen, heavily pregnant and tripping over my own skirts.
What nags at me is this: would I be among those targeted by FN politicians if they ever got their hands on real authority? Maybe not at first, but I’m certain they would get round to people like me at some point, given I’m neither French nor of French extraction. I don’t even know the words to the Marseillaise. To be fair, I’m buggered if I know the second verse to God Save the Queen (really, who does?), but that probably won’t mean a thing when I’m bundled onto the boat back to Blighty.
And therein lies the rub: the Front National is a party that deals in fear – from the beliefs that underpin its manifesto to the laws it would pass should it get the chance, and what its most ardent supporters cling to in the darkest corners of their hearts. The other political parties in France are terrified of the FN’s rise, and quite right too.
Like most ordinary, normal people, I want to see women and men doing their utmost to forge a better world for everyone, to create a society that is equal and fair, and is a place all of us want to be – not just the ones who have enough money or the right coloured skin or religious beliefs. The National Front (or Front National – it’s all the same vicious nastiness) is not just a party to be feared because of the hate at the core of their motives – no matter how deeply buried in the glare of TV cameras – but because they represent the worst in all of us.
As a woman with no real political conviction – just a general interest – it pains me to see someone with Le Pen’s beliefs making such great strides, and I have to wonder what Emily Davison, who was radicalised and marginalised by society in her day, would make of it all.
Had she known that her sacrifice could lead to someone like Le Pen, with her ideology of hate, being in a position of power, would she have bothered? Or, more chillingly, would Davison admire the fact a woman could become a political mover and shaker, beliefs be damned?
I have found that positive role models for my daughter are few and far between (thank heaven for the likes of Jack Monroe and Angelina Jolie), and while Emily Davison is easy to paint as a heroine a century after her death, Le Pen is far more tricky to pigeon-hole, less so if you consider what we may believe 100 years from now. I don’t agree with her politics and as a result, I doubt if I would like her personally. But would she, rather than someone like Davison, who gave her life for what she believed in, compel me to hunt down a ballot box and put a cross on a piece of paper?
At the moment the answer is a grudging “probably” – but only to put a stop to Le Pen and her ilk. Had I been around 100 years ago and seen the suffragettes, there’s every possibility they would have sickened me in the same way Le Pen does.
All I can say is, as the FN gains popularity and Davison spins in her grave, I hope somewhere out there is a female leader with the right blend of common sense and compassion. Modern politics desperately needs her, wherever she is.