Georges Frêche was there at the birth of the Parti Socialiste in the late 1960s, and has held a bewildering array of positions in regional politics since 1973 – member for Herault in the National Assembly until 2002, Mayor of Montpellier from 1977 to 2004 (resigning to become President of the Languedoc-Roussilon region), and councillor and representative at several other levels.
While the PS celebrates giving Sarkozy’s UMP a bloody nose in the first round of the regional elections, the result in Languedoc is a bit of an embarrassment – the PS polled over 25% in every mainland region except Alsace (19%) and...Languedoc, where the PS list of Montpellier Mayor Hélène Mandroux got a wincingly bad 7.74%. They are joined in the grey area caused by the ‘deux tours’ electoral system by the Eco-Europeans (Greens) and Front Gauche (Left Alliance) on 9.12% and 8.59% respectively.
(A little about the system – votes are cast for lists. If one list gains an absolute majority, the seats are shared out proportionally to all lists getting over 5% of the vote. If no list wins outright, there is a second round, to which those lists getting over 10% in the first round go through, and the lists can then be amended to include representatives from the lists in the first round that got over 5%. So if you fall in the 5-10% range, you then have to decide if you want to cosy up to one of the lists going through.)
Why did the ‘traditional left’ take such a kicking? The Front National got 12.67 (11.7% overall), perhaps not unexpected in a region with hideous unemployment and numerous social problems, where the diversity of the population can be used as a handy recruiting tool, but Sarko’s ‘Majorité Presidentielle’ (UMP) got only 19.63. Frêche, booted out of the PS in January 2007 after a racially dubious public comment too far, and his personality-driven list of disaffected former communists, greens and outlying conservatives, took 34.28% of the vote.
Frêche is a confusing figure – referred to by some as the ‘Le Pen of the Left’, he presided (or claimed to preside) over Montpellier’s growth to be the eighth biggest city in France, the development of new quartiers (Antigone, Millenaire), retail / industrial areas (Odysseum), tramways (the longest line in Europe, he said, “you enter it in France, and come out in Ouarzazate” – equating the area of La Paillade with a town in Morocco), an olympic swimming pool (the reasons for which are a bit murky), and media/cultural spaces (Centre Emile-Zola, Corum). His last act as mayor was to pass an ordinance banning all-plastic furniture for bars / eating places in the city – why? I asked when helping Caro, the friendly but slight manager of the Shakespeare pub, as we fought to set out the heavy new metal / MDF tables on the terrace one day. She just rolled her eyes significantly and muttered something my knowledge of French swearwords was not enough to understand. He had previously declared that he would put up a statue of Lenin in one of the many squares in the city, to educate the young. Later, he mused, maybe one of Mao. After that, perhaps, one of General De Gaulle...
‘Maverick’ doesn’t really cover Frêche – understanding the nuances of political speech in a foreign language is difficult, but I think I can identify a dark sense of humour underpinning some of his more eccentric public pronouncements. In 2007 he boasted that he had freed Montpellier of ‘d’Eretz-Israel’, while proclaiming himself a friend of Israel, and congratulating the nation for having elected a Jewish President (as he meant, not entirely accurately, Sarkozy, one can assume some irony was being deployed). He always has a good ‘leftist’ rationalisation for his statements – when in 2006 he referred to Harkis (Algerians who sided with the French in the Algerian War) allying themselves with conservative groups wanting schools to stress the benefits that the French brought to their colonies as sous-hommes (‘sub-humans’), his reasoning was that « Ils ont massacré les vôtres en Algérie et vous allez leur lécher les bottes ! » (“They massacred your own in Algeria and now you lick their boots!”) – ah yes, they should have more solidarity, a good, leftist, anti-colonial sentiment...but, as ever, his epithet of choice was very problematic. In one of the many cases and official complaints resulting from his public statements, the court found in 2007 that he had been speaking to two particular individuals, not to the Harki community, let alone the Algerian community, at large.
Later that year he was fined for defaming the French police (saying that in 1968, they had started the fires on the barricades). This came after the PS had kicked him out, finally, after he had observed in 2006 that there were nine black players in the national football team, when the ‘normalité’ would be three or four. This was not a complaint about the black players, he stressed, but a complaint about white people – «c'est parce que les blancs sont nuls. J'ai honte pour ce pays. Bientôt, il y aura onze blacks. Quand je vois certaines équipes de foot, ça me fait de la peine. » (“because white people are hopeless. I’m ashamed of this country. Soon, there will be eleven blacks. When I see certain football teams, it pains me”).
Most recently, in early 2010, he has allegedly declared he will ‘karcheriser des Libains’, thus pissing off the Lebanese community (but, again, talking specifically about certain local politicians of Lebanese extraction, he says, not the community in general). I had to look ‘karcheriser’ up. A ‘karcher’ is a powerful water-jet, used in cleaning. It can also, it seems, mean a water-cannon. And he’s having a tiff with Laurent Fabius, former Prime Minister (and Minister of the Economy), about whether or not each would vote for the other if they had the chance. This would be nothing, compared to his previous, if Frêche hadn’t observed that Fabius «a une tronche pas catholique» (“his face is not catholic”).
But his biggest conflict has always been with the PS – despite being in at the beginning, and elected to at least one office as a member since 1973, he has never held national office. He annoyed too many people, but he also stood up against the sometimes murky financing of the party. Having put up with him for many years, the PS said that his statements in 2006 were a step too far (“not compatible with equality and human rights”) – but some believe that they were simply grateful for an excuse to get rid of a man who had become a pain in the cul. If they were thinking he’d quietly return to teaching at the University, they were very wrong. When Martine Aubry, head of the PS, told Mandoux to form the PS list for the regional elections, they failed to take account of the stubbornness of both Frêche and the local electorate. In the run-up to the election, many local shops have been displaying a positive autobiography of the man who has run Montpellier politics for so long. Alternative ‘exposés’ by the local press are hidden on the more difficult-to-reach shelves.
All the criticism of his alleged racism, bullying manner, occasionally strange investment decisions (an olympic pool, really?) seem to fade away next to the prevailing belief that Frêche may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch. The Languedoc may be seen as a bit chippy (the old language still crops up from time to time, Paris is abroad, northerners are fair game for laughter or exploitation), and the PS has discovered to its cost that expecting its electorate to be good little lambs was unrealistic. Now they have to decide whether to crawl back to Frêche to try to get into the second round (the Greens have already said this is out of the question) – whether to risk him, in a very strong position and likely to pick up the majority of the leftist voters whose first choices missed the cut who bother to vote next time round, telling them to...
Well, we can imagine what he might say. It would undoubtedly not be pretty.