MY FIRST CLUE that French Socialists are not adequately explained by Karl Marx came from the politician, M. Nicoletti, as he campaigned in our small village. Nicoletti was larger than most of his constituents, a bluff man with a big voice, given to hearty exaggerations. He intended to reassure, but the villagers, who were naturally cautious, seemed intimidated by his broad manner.
This was several years ago when as a grand statement of our flakiness, we retreated from the noise of political Washington and lived for a quiet time in a small and poor village in the mountains of Provence.My French was weak and the villagers speak in a rough and empatic accent, overlaid with Italian vowels and echoes of their ancient tongue, Provencal. So watching Nicoletti was a little like watching politics without words, like watching a film with a jumpy sound track. When the Socialists won the French national elections recently, i naturally thought of Nicoletti and how different he is from the Socialists I read about in the newspapers.
The people in our village, many of whom were Communists, did not care for Nicoletti. They were peasants or laborers, masons, farm hands, workers in the small tile factories of the valley. Nicoletti was an electrical contractor, ambitious and brisk, on the make. Furthermore, he was not from our village, Villecroze, but from another a few kilometers away at the head of the valley, a larger place called Salernes where there were more shops and bars and occasional disturbances, like gunfights and bank robberies.
Nicoletti laughed too loudly; he was too familiar, too confident. A typical Socialist hustler, it was said, mixing politics and business. In the previous cantonal election, when Nicoletti was elected deputy to the departmental asembly, roughly equivalent to the state legislature, a majority of the citizens of Villecroze had voted against him.
Another election was coming in the spring, so we saw a lot of Nicoletti that year. We were living among poor people in a place where poverty is softened by the glorious Mediterranean sunlight and the old village walls evoke a strange blend of gloom and beauty. Villecroze looked like a crumbling fortress huddled against the mountain wall, as indeed the medieval village was originally. Its narrow alleys and curving walls, the cold damp corners where the sunlight never reaches, still suggest a community bound together by ancient fears and suspicions.
This is not the France one generally reads about in the foreign dispatches. This is village France where, it is said, most French people still live, either in fact or in spirit. In the villages, away from the intellectual conceits of Paris, beyond the reach of Le Monde or Le Figaro, the grand ideological labels of French politics take on contrary meanings.
What is a Communist when he is standing ahead of you in line at the boulangerie ? Does a Socialist politician on the make seem so different from an American politician on the make? The ideological definitions explored so seriously by American experts on foreign policy -- seem much less compelling in the villages and profoundly misleading. The recent victory of the Socialist Francois Mitterand does have global implications, perhaps, but I insist upon the importance of parochial human implications too -- of the ambitions of M. Nicoletti and the thwarted history of our little village in Provence.
The first time we encountered Nicoletti he turned up at a school meeting called to discuss the affairs of the little two-room village school our children attended.
Nicoletti stood in the walled courtyard of the school, a figure of authority surrounded by deferential parents. When Deputy Nicoletti was introduced to the Americans, he launched into an expansive statement on his admiration for American life, all the cities he had visted there -- New York, Washington, Detroit and others.
It seemed odd that small-time Socialist from rural France had toured the U.S.A. several times. How did he come to visit America?
With the Lions Club, he explained.
The Lions Club? You mean our Lions Club?
Nicoletti proudly produced his membership card in the Lions Club International. I never knew they let Socialists join the Lions Club.
In the dead winter weeks which followed Christmas, Nicoletti brought stirring news to the village: Thanks to his perseverance at the departmental capital and his dedication to the people of Villecroze, the government was appropriating a vast sum (100,000 francs, as I recall, nearly $25,000) so that the children of Villecroze could attend an ecole de neige in the French Alps. This seemed extraordinary news: The entire upper class, including our children, would be sent at government expense to a mountain resort, accompanied by their teacher, for three weeks of skiing and schooling.
We were ecstatic and assumed that the villagers would be too. This midwinter "change of air" for schoolchildren is a standard feature of French education, one which wealthy America ought to imitate, allowing children of every class and region to experience life outside their own village and home environment. City kids are sent to the country and vice versa, to the coast or to the mountains. The children of Villecroze had never gone before. It seemed quite a triumph for Nicoletti to arrange it.
But our village was not impressed. At the butcher shop, at the post office, at the cafe and bakery and grocery, Nicoletti's patronage was quickly overwhelmed by suspicion and gossip. Was it such a good idea, mothers asked, to send our little ones so far away from home? What would the hotel be like? Could we be sure the children would be properly fed?
The mayor expressed his own doubts. It was all very well to send the children this year. But what about next year? What if there was no money to send the children next year or the year after? What would people say then? People would talk.
In a few days of swelling gossip, the village grapevine had worked out its own explanation for Nicoletti's triumph. The hotel in the Alps, it was said, actually belonged to Nicoletti's brother or perhaps his brother-in-law.Possibly there was a "deal" between Nicoletti and the hotel owner. Who could say precisely? Who could doubt that there was something untold, something not right, about this proposition?
Deputy Nicoletti launched a counteroffensive against the whisperings. Family by family, he called personally on each household, presented the parents with an elaborate brochure on the hotel in the Alps, including color photos of the bedrooms and the mountain valley. Enclosed was a long and eloquent letter from himself, the deputy, on the sacred responsibilities of parents toward their children. It closed with a solemn pledge that the, Deputy Nicoletti, a father himself, took personal responsibility for the well-being of each child embarking on this great adventure.
Nicoletti then made the final clinching gesture. He would arrange, personally, a one-day bus trip for the parents, too, so that they could go visit the children at their mountain resort and insure that all was well. The children went to the mountains and so did all the parents, and everyone had a good time.
As the spring elections approached, we followed the notices in the provincial newspaper, Var-Matin, and read the handbills distributed by local candidates. Nicoletti's principal challenger was an aging factroy worker, also with an Italian name, who was the Communist candidate. His handbill consisted, entirely, of a recitation of his combat record in World War II. He was a veteran of the Maquis, the French underground that waged sporadic guerrilla warfare against the Nazis in Vichy France. He listed, one by one, the liberations of local villages in which he had participated.
The memory of World War II is still powerful politics in village France. And of World War I, for that matter. The year we were in France, Giscard d'Estaing proposed the merger of the two national holidays, La Victoire in November celebrating the World War I armistice and Liberation Day in May celebrating the end of German occupation in 1945. Villages all over France ignored the president and continued to celebrate both.
Our children, wanting to belong, marched with the French children to the ceremony at the village cemetery where the mayor put flowers on the war memorial. They paused en route beside a small marker placed on the high wall along the village lane. The plaque said: "Ici est tombee Maurice Roger par les balles Allemande. France sourviens toi. "
France remembers you. Marice Roger, we learned, was the local hero, a young man of the Maquis who ran messages from the mountain hideout to the village. One night he was betrayed by another villager, collaborating with the Nazis, and cut down by German machine guns. Later, on, we learned that even Maurice Roger was the subject of suspect gossip. He was having an affair with a village woman, we were told in a confidential whisper, and her husband betrayed him and his death had nothing to do with fighting the Nazis.
Village France remembers too well. These memories of old wars, defeat and resistance and collaboration with the enemy, still hang heavily over the people, especially in Provence, where the villages lost so many wars, were conquered again and again by invading armies -- the Greeks and Romans, the Saracens, the hated Franks who conquered this region and forced it into the French nation. The graffiti on local walls expressed the historic resentments: Parisians Out. British Out. Giscard Is Fascism.
A Communist in our village or a Socialist, for that matter, did not need Marx to understand that he hated the northerners of France who took advantage of his region or the distant government in Paris that controlled everything.These people lived in eternal opposition and also constant collaboration with former enemies.
The Communist Party of the Var issued a policy statement that expressed the contradiction nicely. They were for development of the region, for that meant jobs. But they were against tourism, for that threatened the ancient intergrity of the villages.
Nicoletti tried to avoid these arguments. He was for development. Period. And, of course, he was against Paris.
In the month before the election, we could not help but notice that paving crews were at work all over the canton. Every main road connecting the three villages in Nicoletti's district got a new layer of asphalt. This seemed totally familiar to me; indeed, it is precisely how local politics works in those parts of America where most of the voters are poor.
And Nicoletti made one important promise to his constituents. If reelected, he announced, he would make every effort to see that an appropriation was made for a new television relay tower. TV reception was not good in this mountain valley. Nicoletti, the Socialist, promised to deliver better TV reception.
When the votes were counted, Nicoletti won, as everyone expected. He also carried Villecroze. I don't think there is great meaning in that, a village shifting from the Communist column to the Socialist column. But, while we have not been back in recent years, I will bet confidently that Nicoletti delivered his TV antenna and, now that a Socialist is president of France, our village in the South will continue to hate Paris.