LAST NIGHT, AZIZ CLOSED his brightly colored snack stand early. Police barriers blocked any potential customers from picking up a Nutella drizzled waffle or a stuffed crepe, so there wasn’t much point in staying open late.
But even after he closed the shop, Aziz stayed to watch the party. After all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Socialist candidate François Hollande had just been elected president (with 51.62% of votes against Sarkozy’s 48.38%) and his thousands of supporters had been swarming to the Place de la Bastille since the late afternoon. Music played; people sang and drank and shouted. It was one exuberant, excited party that celebrated up until François Hollande took the stage shortly after midnight (the newly elected president began his speech by saying “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I can hear YOU!”) and continued well after.
Aziz said the energy reminded him of the energy at the rally for far-Left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who inspired a fad-following earlier in the election.
And Aziz is well qualified to comment. His crepe stand is well-placed to watch French politics unfold. Moving between Place de la Bastille and Place de la République, Aziz sells snacks to participants in some of the most important political rallies and protests in Paris. From union workers to Hollande supporters to rural French to undocumented immigrants, Aziz has gets a slice of modern France from behind his counter while he provides everyone with Nutella crepes.
The demographics of customers
I ask Aziz if different slices of French society differ as customers.
“Just as they differ in life, they are different in front of my stand,” he said.
His favorite are the rallies held by the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), one of France’s largest and most established trade unions. He says the workers bring their families and end up spending “upwards of 20 euro to feed everyone.”
On the other hand, when the unemployed gather to ask for more benefits, “we don’t sell anything,” Aziz says, laughing. “They don’t have money for a Nutella crepe.”
Unfortunately, in the midst of tough economic times, the poor have been gathering more than ever, says Aziz. During the election, the economy and economic security were at the height of concerns of the French citizens.
Many voters, feeling the threat of insecurity, turned to the far-right party, the Front national, and candidate Marine Le Pen, who earned a surprising number of votes in the first round of the elections. Though the far-right doesn’t hold rallies in the Eastern Parisian regions where Aziz is based, he often runs into them in the summer when he takes his crepe stand on the road with a traveling fair. The largest base of support for the far-right is in rural areas.
“The kind of people who vote Front national are the kind of people who you can tell are uncomfortable buying from an Arab when they come to your stand,” Aziz says frankly. “They aren’t going to be nice about it.”
This highlights one of the biggest critiques of the far-right — they are close-minded towards immigrants and often considered racist.
Immigration was also a key issue in this election. After Le Pen earned a large chunk of votes in the first round, Sarkozy sought to gain her supporters’ votes by veering to the hard-right. In the end, this policy line lost him both votes and endorsements (for example, the centrist candidate François Bayrou endorsed Hollande) and caused the Left to rally against him (‘Beat Sarkozy!’ was the final battle cry of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon).
For Aziz, an immigrant himself, this makes sense.
“France is not just made up of French these days,” he said. “There are people from all over. We have to learn to live together.”
He said these immigrants play a vital role in French society.
“After all, the French gather here to protest or to celebrate, but who sells them food? And who cleans up after them the next day?” he said, referring to the enormous clean-up effort launched in the early hours of the morning following any big rally or event.
Aziz is pretty happy that Hollande is France’s future president — he says it marks a new chapter. But he doesn’t expect miracles from the guy labeled “Mr. Normal” by journalists.
“We are just hoping for something a little better,” he said, expressing a sentiment widespread across France on this day after the election.
In the meantime, Aziz — representing traditional French values (what is more French than a crepe?) and new ones (he himself is an immigrant) — will keep on observing France from behind his counter. And keep on serving hot, Nutella-filled crepes. [Note: This post first appeared in its original form on Brenna’s blog.]