Monday, May 8, 2017
On A Mountain Top With France's New President
PAU, FRANCE — Not surprisingly it’s very different to travel with a French presidential candidate than with an American one. Granted, this was not an ordinary trip for Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate for president of France, but still. We (myself and the French photographer, Pierre Terdjman) took a flight at dawn down to Pau, which is inland from Biarritz and in the plains just below where the Pyrenees begin. There we joined with a press pool following Mr. Macron.
There were about 20 journalists — mostly from TV, but also some who were with newswires and still photographers. Everyone except me was French. We stopped first at Bagnères-de-Bigorre, a town well known for its salty ham, where the candidate’s grandparents had lived, and then headed up toward the mountains for lunch and to see a restaurant proprietor Mr. Macron had known since his youth.
It seemed a bit out of the way, but Mr. Macron is relatively new to politics: This is his first run for elected office. And, a few days after the trip to Pau, Mr. Macron won the first round of voting against his closest competitor, the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen. The second, final round vote, is this Sunday.
We drove up into the Pyrénées — and up and up. Then, the driver pulled the bus over next to a snowfield, and all the reporters began getting out and retrieving their suitcases from the luggage compartment. I was confused; the only thing I could see, some 200 meters away across the melting snow, was a chair lift with skiers lined up.
One of the French reporters looked at my footwear — black suede ballet-slipper flats that I wear when you have to look presentable but may need to run after someone. “Is that all you have?” she asked me in French. I shrugged and said “Umm, oui.”
“Oh,” she said. “I think we are going up the mountain to a restaurant. They didn’t tell you to bring anything else?” They hadn’t, but then I had joined the trip at the last minute.
The French reporters, always nattily dressed, got busy lacing up spiffy hiking boots they had brought in their luggage. One of the press attachés looked particularly dashing in Christopher Robin-style rain boots. The Macrons, Emmanuel and his wife, Brigitte (who is always with him), donned short, stylish down ski jackets (his black, hers a brilliant azure blue) and serious shoes for walking through the snow.
Altogether there were probably 35 people in his entourage, including press, a bunch of staffers, security guards and several local dignitaries. We all clambered across the snowfield as bemused skiers watched our progress. Then, in groups of three, we boarded the chair lift, a logistical feat hard to imagine in the context of an American political campaign. I tried to look nonchalant, as if I always walked through snow in ballet slippers.
It took at least 20 minutes on the lift to get from the bottom to the top, and I was struck that Mr. Macron, in the final push of his campaign before the first-round vote, didn’t seem to mind spending time being ferried up a mountain top where there were few potential voters. Those there stopped at our ski hut for just a few minutes to grab a snack between runs.
It was breathtakingly beautiful at the top, in a cirque of mountains, the day crystal clear. As we slid off the chairlift, we could see the hut across the snow, and next to it, the young waiters setting up little tables with wine glasses that they filled with a local white wine so we could all “boire un verre” to celebrate the moment — another experience I doubt would have happened in America.
Then Mr. Macron went to the dazzlingly sunny roof terrace to have lunch with the group of local dignitaries who had followed us up on the chairlift while we waited.
And waited as he and his wife and others ate lunch and talked to all the local officials and supporters. As the meal drew to a close, the local dignitaries spontaneously started singing French folk tunes from the Pyrénées, including a favorite: “Les Montagnes Pyrénées.”
The journalists ate the poor ski hut out of house and home, consuming ham and cheese Paninis and pommes frites. Then some had a smoke. (Many more journalists in France are smokers than in the United States, but a lot have switched to electronic cigarettes. One photographer got out a pouch of tobacco and papers and rolled his own.) Two hours later, we at last headed down the mountain. I was amazed that a presidential candidate could take that much time off in the final stretch of a long campaign. In the final days of an American campaign, a candidate wouldn’t spend two hours having lunch, no matter whom it was with; he or she would be on the move, shoring up support, getting out votes.
None of the French reporters, however, thought it at all unusual that Mr. Macron spent the morning in a small village and midday atop a mountain. They explained that it was natural to be on the mountain with the candidate given his attachment to the “terroir” of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region, where he had spent time in childhood and had learned to hike and ski and bike. Mr. Macron’s grandmother had lived in the village, and she was a very important person in his life, they said. One of his aides told me that at one point he had wanted to live with her rather than living at home. She died four years ago. “Nous sommes très attaché à notre terroir. Il voudrait montrer ses racines; où il est enraciné,” said one of the French TV reporters. (We are very attached to our ‘terroir.’ He wants to show his roots; where he is rooted.)
The one serious political event of the day — a rally at the Zenith concert hall in Pau – involved a nearly two-hour drive from the Pyrenees back to Pau. It was a relaxed ride, many people slept, others tried to work, but music — American classics sung in French — was blasting forth on the bus’ P.A. system. The playlist included the Chuck Berry song “Johnny be Good” (in French), a priceless version of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” (“Frappe aux portes du paradis”) and a bilingual version of “Over the Rainbow” (in French and English).
Stuck in rush-hour traffic, members of the Macron press team were on their cellphones shouting over “Frappe aux portes du paradis.” They were trying to figure out whether we should ditch the event with the local mayor, one of the most important politicians to have endorsed Mr. Macron, to be on time for Mr. Macron’s speech that night. The decision was made to ditch it, but, the press team explained, it was fine because the mayor would introduce Mr. Macron at the Zenith, where a vast crowd was waiting patiently to get through security.
Standing room only: more than 5,000 inside and another 1,500 watching giant screens outside. A pretty good turnout for Pau.