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What’s in a Tie? Ask France’s National Assembly by Hélène de Lauzun

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What’s in a Tie? Ask France’s National Assembly

Représentant du peuple en mission, Députés: H. G. Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau / Député sortant de l’Assemblée / Députés J. B. Belley et J. B. Mills / Député Granet (between 1789 and 1798), by Lesueur, Jean-Baptiste, located in the Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris.

Ever since the new National Assembly took office at the end of June 2022, a debate has been raging among French MPs—a debate now almost a war: that of the appropriate attire to go and defend the interests of the people.

The far Left, under the label of the NUPES coalition, with the hard core of the deputies of La France Insoumise (LFI), has from the very first days intended to show its distinction and its concern to be ‘close to the people’ by wearing what may be deemed unexpected and somewhat loose clothes. We have witnessed a new kind of fashion show with clothes—and the behaviour that goes with them—that are increasingly questionable. Parliamentarians are sporting sandals or sneakers, wearing t-shirts, sitting cross-legged on the lawns of the Palais Bourbon, assuming positions and postures never seen before.

The president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, Renaud Muselier, criticised a “dirty, dishevelled Left, which shouts everywhere.” He chided them: “You represent the Republic, you have an office, you are not in a playground. You’ve just come out of the sandbox and you’re in the big house. You must try to behave at that level.” 

Clearly, Muselier ascribes to the general idea that when you dress badly, you end up behaving badly. “La tenue nous tient” (the outfit holds us), as we say in French. 

The elected representatives, designated as unmannerly children, replied harshly that they were less socially advantaged and that they intended to be ‘in the image of the people.’

But not everything is allowed in the National Assembly. The LR deputy Éric Ciotti, who holds the official post of quaestor, wrote to the president of the Assembly Yaël Braun-Pivet on Thursday, July 21st, asking that ties be made compulsory in the Assembly. The Communist Patrice Carvalho had appeared in 1997 on the red seats of the Assembly in blue overalls—his working clothes—but with a tie, recalls Éric Ciotti. But since 2017, jacket and tie are no longer mandatory to sit. 

The young Louis Boyard, a 21-year-old La France Insoumise deputy, who has been multiplying his outbursts since his election, responded to Ciotti by taking his turn in calling on President Braun-Pivet and asking her to ban from the Chamber “exorbitantly expensive” suits, “which cost more than one SMIC” (the minimum wage). 

One could easily retort to young Boyard that elegance, dignity, and propriety are not a question of means. The MPs have an envelope for their personal expenses, and it is quite possible, on the one hand, to find in the shops appropriate suits for a few tens of euros—designer trainers, on the other hand, can reach prices that are perfectly “exorbitant.”

Yaël Braun-Pivet, the president of the Assembly, recalled on Monday, July 25th, by way of arbitration between the two parties, that a “correct” outfit was required, but that she refused to “exercise the kind of policing to enforce a dress code.” 

And why would she? What does “correct” even look like? The relative nature of this term leaves this descriptor open to interpretation. Ciotti, in his letter to Braun-Pivet, rightly points out that what used to be taken for granted now needs to be clarified. We have left behind the era of the simple and obvious. Article 9 of the General Instruction of the Office of the National Assembly stipulates that “the dress adopted by Members in the Chamber must remain neutral and resemble business attire.” But what does “business attire” mean today, when we see how ordinary people dress in the streets of Paris when they go to work, especially when the thermometer rises a little? 

In case of non-compliance, sanctions had been put in place. In 2017, for example, the LFI MP François Ruffin was fined €1,378 for sitting on the benches of the Chamber wearing a football shirt. It is easy to condemn the wearing of a football shirt, but the exercise of clothing discernment becomes more subtle when it comes to judging the tastes and colours of each individual.

The soap opera in the National Assembly is not about to end. 

In response to Ciotti’s request to return to the compulsory tie, the female deputies of LFI arrived on Wednesday, July 26th, at the Palais Bourbon with a tie around their necks, to denounce the “machismo” of Éric Ciotti, who seems to forget that 37% of deputies today are women and therefore cannot submit to his patriarchal injunction. The affair is becoming grotesque. 

What appears to be coquettish drama disguises a fundamental debate. To what extent is the parliamentarian’s outfit really an “accessory”? What purpose do dress codes play in the important role of representing the people?

It’s obvious that how we dress impacts behaviour. One does not behave in the same way when wearing a sports tracksuit or a three-piece suit. And any woman—since we must also talk about women—knows perfectly well that her behaviour will be different if she wears jeans and sneakers, or a skirt and perches on high heels. 

If we hold that dress wear induces certain behaviours, we must acknowledge that dress codes for politicians are no silly matter. The young deputy Boyard from France Insoumise justifies his scruffy look on the grounds that it ‘reflects the people.’ But should one be the image of the people, when representing them, or is it one’s mission to pull them up?—a debate as old as democracy itself. Besides, Boyard’s crew misses the point that it’s not the cost of the garment that matters, but the sense of dignity that emanates from it.

Rassemblement National’s deputies, in search of respectability, arrive every morning all dressed up—suit and tie for the men, formal dress for the women. A group of parliamentary assistants, the Albert de Mun group, which brings together male and female parliamentary collaborators working for different right-wing and centre parties—Horizons, LR, RN, and independents—published an article in Valeurs actuelles to express their strong disapproval of the free-and-easy element in the Assembly. The first duty of a parliamentarian, they assert, is to honour those who have entrusted him with his mandate. His mission is to embody, in his humble capacity, the people, not in the strict sense of the working classes, but French men and women who hold national sovereignty. And this requires some form, if one believes—a little—in the dignity of democracy. 

By refusing to put on the costume of their job, the far-Left deputies are embodying the most mediocre individualism, which triumphs everywhere else and against which they claim to fight. They trample on the sense of duty, the dignity of the function they exercise, in a low-level revolution that has neither depth nor programme. From the very beginning of the French Revolution, did not the deputies, who were sinister characters in so many respects, take it to heart to equip themselves with an appropriate costume?

Ultimately, the scruffy deputies of La France Insoumise are deluding themselves if they imagine that swaddled in their shapeless bags they are more spontaneous and natural, and therefore closer to the people. There is nothing natural or spontaneous about it. Everything is staged, and Zelensky’s T-shirt is no more spontaneous than Jean-Marie Le Pen’s impeccable ties and pockets. 

The brutal confrontation of the majority of the deputies with the ragged horde of the NUPES has at least the merit of triggering an electroshock throughout the political parties—Macronists or LR, for instance—who are discovering that rigour can have a meaning and that one cannot allow oneself to do everything, even in the era of ‘no taboos.’

More fundamentally, NUPES should be careful not to abuse the ‘we are close to the people’ argument. The little people do not like to be made fun of. They do not expect their leaders to be ‘close to them’ at all costs. How else can we explain the continued popularity of General de Gaulle, or the French enthusiasm for the British monarchy? For the ruling elite, the balance to be sought is subtle, between knowing how to arouse the admiration of those humbler than oneself, without sinking into an excessive feeling of one’s own superiority. Between us, this wisdom was once the key to the education of our sovereigns. What common sense!

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).