This is a season in France for clearing the throat, looking around, and muttering: 'Now… where were we?' The long paralysis of lockdown is over. There are once more restaurants in which to conduct conspiratorial lunches, bars in which to shout the odds of sedition, cafés in which to philosophise long into the warm, dry watches of the night. In other words, it is business as usual, moderated only by the French tradition of doing as little as possible in the summer months and by the difficulty of calling to mind exactly what was on the agenda before we were all so rudely interrupted.
The first item of business is round two of the local elections. Round one was held, ill-advisedly, at the outset of the coronavirus scare, on 15 March, and to no-one's surprise produced a poor turnout, especially among the elderly, who are normally assiduous voters. Round two, scheduled to take place the following weekend, was sensibly shelved, and will now take place on 28 June. Incidentally, for the first time, Brits resident in France are barred from voting at the local elections, despite being liable (and how) for French local taxes. Thanks, Brexiteers.
Those hoping for a solid prediction of the outcome must look elsewhere, but I doubt they'll find one. In a country with three tiers of local government and 36,000 municipalities, most the size of Balamory, personalities loom large, parish-pump grievances linger long, and alliances are built on soil way too sandy for party structures. This time, the gap between rounds has seen deals done, broken and remade to an unprecedented degree. Beyond an apparent shift in favour of green, or green-sounding, candidates, and against the president's Republic En Marche (REM) party, it is hard to discern much of a pattern from the first round. Fly-posting has resumed with a vengeance.
Even in a big city like Montpellier, where we live, national politics are subsidiary. Predominantly, the election here is about Philippe Saurel, the publicity-keen incumbent mayor, who is also president of the Montpellier Méditerranée Metropole, a Greater Montpellier comprising the city plus surrounding communes, except for the ones that can't abide Philippe Saurel.
Saurel emerged ahead from a first round graced by no fewer than 14 candidate lists (including three rival sprigs of Greens), but was still not certain of re-election. He was first elected for the Socialist Party, shortly before it slumped in the wake of François Hollande's dreich presidency, and the ascendancy of Emanuel Macron. Saurel then switched to the broad-left Divers Gauche. His journey exemplifies the fragmentation of French politics, national and local, since the Socialist-Gaullist duopoly ended. It also demonstrates the importance of city mayors. The mayor of Le Havre, fighting desperately for re-election, is a case in point. His name is Edouard Philippe and you might have thought he had enough to do in his day job as Prime Minister of France.
Relatively few candidates get home on the first ballot. This time, they've had a long limbo to endure, neither in office nor out, and prevented by lockdown until last week from doing any serious campaigning. Incumbents have focused on managing the devolved bits of lockdown as creatively as possible. They hope it will bring some reward at the polls.
Macron and Philippe too have won positive reviews for their clear, consistent, sober demeanour on COVID-19. Their measured relaxation of lockdown has been achieved without any resurgence so far of the virus. But now retrospection is kicking in. Tough questions are surfacing over whether they were too slow to apply controls, to track, to order protective gear. They did better than the music hall turn in Downing Street, but much worse than Mutti next door in Germany, which is the comparison that matters. Ominously, the chief prosecutor in Paris is investigating the state's conduct of the crisis, amid talk of possible homicide charges. By last weekend, more than 100 actions had been lodged across the country against public authorities, many by grieving relatives.
Concurrently, people are starting to remember the sundry grievances that were stacking up against Macron before coronavirus hit. No-one has given much thought for months to the protests of the gilets jaunes around fiscal policy or the subsequent industrial mayem over the president's pension reforms, which were stalled by the lockdown. They're remembering now: and if they're not, then they surely will as the Government confronts the economic chasm dug by the virus. The Banque de France reckons it will take two years to get the economy back on course.
The OECD predicts that, this year, France will suffer the second worst hit among the developed economies: an 11.4% fall in GDP, with only the UK worse on 11.5%. Macron's star first started to tarnish when he repealed François Mitterand's tax on top earners. Now, as bills for lockdown multiply, the many-sided issue of how to pay them is pushing rapidly to the fore. Once again, the question of how harshly to tax the rich, to quote Le Monde, 'fait son grand retour'.
If the polls are to be believed, the French admire Macron's handling of COVID-19, but still don't much like the man himself. This is a potentially huge problem for him. Those who have no loyalty to Macron personally, have none to his party either. REM was created specifically as his vehicle. It has no institutional memory, no political hinterland. There is little optimism evident for the local elections, where it did pretty well last time around. In Parliament, similarly, the REM won an dazzling majority in 2017 on Macron's coat-tails. It lost that majority last month, when seven Deputies defected to a new Green grouping.
The Presidential Election is due in 2022 (Macron has denied reports that he is pondering a snap election). It had been expected to be a re-run of 2017, between Macron and Marine Le Pen's National Rally, rebranded from her father's far-right National Front. In such circumstances, Macron could afford to be cautiously confident. Now, though, there are rumours that Ségolène Royal, Hollande's former partner and defeated for the presidency in 2007 by Nicolas Sarkozy, might fancy a run. Further rogue factors might arise if REM takes a big tumble at the local elections.
Meanwhile, the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests are watched nervously in France, where race relations in the urban banlieus, or housing schemes, are a perennial tinderbox. A pre-emptive ban on France's truculent riot police using chokeholds brought the police themselves out on the Champs Élysées to protest, followed on Saturday by a rowdy BLM march, with images of Adama Traoré, a Malian killed in custody by French police in 2016, taking the place of George Floyd. The President appealed for calm in a televised address to the nation on Sunday evening, declaring: 'We are a nation where everyone, whatever their origins or religion, has their place'.
His main purpose was to announce an accelerated path out of lockdown. France, he said, had won the first battle in the war against the virus. 'L'État a tenu,' he insisted: the state has held firm.
Here in the Languedoc, the first thunderstorms of summer are just getting underway.