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A Bull’s Nose Ring – French Politics in 2022

by Richard Pooley

Not long after my wife and I came to live in the village of Vayrac in south-west France in 2013 we set up an English-French group. The aim was to help the French improve their English and for us to improve our French. Nobody made much progress but we all had a lot of fun and wine not doing so. As time went by, at this venue and others, I gradually learned the political views of our friends and neighbours. They were either of the Left or of the Right. It was rare for a political party to be mentioned. When someone said they were “socialiste”, it didn’t necessarily mean they voted for the Socialist Party, the party of then president, François Hollande. There were, and still are, any number of parties “of the Left”. Likewise, I can’t recall any of the few who said they were “of the Right” naming a party, not even the then mainstream Republican Party.

The presidential election of 2017 changed all that. Emmanuel Macron had been a junior member of Hollande’s government but pitched himself and his new party, En Marche, as centrist, neither of the Left nor of the Right. His novelty and the embezzlement investigation which destroyed the hopes of the Republicans’ candidate, François Fillon, meant that he got through the first found of voting to face Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front. As we know, Macron trounced her. Those of the Left may have mistrusted this “socialiste” banker but there was no way they would accept the racist Le Pen. As David Lee said in the last issue, French “voters cast their ballot for the person they like most in the first round and against the person they like least in the second”. (British readers: hard as it is to do so, imagine in 2015 Nick Clegg beating Nigel Farage to become Prime Minister, after the Labour Party under Ed Milliband and the Conservatives under David Cameron had together barely managed to get a quarter of the vote.)

We moved back to the UK in late 2018 but I have been a frequent visitor to our house in France despite the best efforts of Covid-19 and governments to stop me. I’m writing this during my latest trip, deliberately planned to span both rounds of the 2022 presidential election. On the night that I arrived in mid-March I had dinner with a French couple. Philippe, ex-owner of a panel-beating business and, like me, ardent supporter of local rugby club, Brive, admitted that he was going to vote for Le Pen of the renamed Rassemblement National (National Rally).* I had always known he was of the Right and his active support for the anti-Macron gilets jaunes meant I was not surprised. Marie, however, had still not decided between Éric Zemmour of the extreme right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far left (British readers: think Nick Griffin, ex-leader of the British National Party, and Jeremy Corbyn, ex-leader of the Labour Party). I still don’t know who she chose. Both Zemmour and Mélenchon are out of the race, coming fourth (7% of the vote) and third (22%, only 1% less than Le Pen) respectively in the first round. Those who voted for Zemmour will vote for Le Pen on April 24. But Mélenchon’s supporters? He has asked them not to vote for Le Pen but has not endorsed Macron. I have little doubt that Marie, even if she did vote for Mélenchon, will vote for Le Pen in the run-off. And so will millions of others.

The pre-2017 mainstream parties, the Socialists and Republicans, did even worse than they did in 2017 in the first round. Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, the Socialist Party candidate, got 1.75% of the votes. Valérie Pécresse of the Republicans got 4.78% (below the threshold for getting more than 800,000€ campaign costs paid by the State; Pécresse is now begging supporters to donate money to cover her personal debts of 5 million €).

The day after I arrived in Vayrac I listened to the views of Fabienne, who runs the village’s haberdashery (a word she could never say correctly in our English-French group)**. She told me that she would vote for a “small” candidate in round one and for Macron in round two. She didn’t tell me who this small candidate was. No need; whoever it was had no chance of getting through to the run-off. What she did tell me, at length, was how others were likely to vote: “Many around here support Le Pen...and so do many of my family.” She was clearly distressed at how heated political discussions within her family had become. It must be hard for her husband too; like many immigrants in this area he is a naturalized French citizen, born and raised in Portugal. I don't imagine he will ever vote for Le Pen.

But many people in Vayrac did support her in the first round. One of the pleasures of French elections is how swiftly the results come out. Exit polls, highly accurate, are broadcast the moment voting stops on Sunday evening. I was able to enjoy my breakfast coffee and croissant on Monday 11 April seeing online, courtesy of the Ministry of the Interior, exactly how many “voix” each candidate had got in Vayrac: 167 (23.76% of total votes cast) for Le Pen, five more than Macron, eight more than Mélenchon. In what was once a Socialist stronghold Hidalgo got just 29 votes (4.13%).

Even Fabienne understands why so many of her family, friends and neighbours are voting for the extremist politicians: “People in the countryside feel ignored by the city people. We are told to stop using our cars. It’s easy for them. They can use bikes or the metro. But are we supposed to bicycle to Brive? It’s 35 kms!”

In January 2017 I wrote an article which described the alienation people like Fabienne, Philippe and Marie in rural and small-town France feel towards their city-dwelling compatriots. That was before the last election. That feeling of being patronised and ignored has grown even stronger in the years that Macron his been president. I have appended that article to this one. See below.

For decades French politics was like that of a bull’s horns: those on the extremes – the tips of the horns - of the Left or of the Right were as far apart in their political opinions as they could be. No longer. The analogy now is with a bull’s nose ring. The difference in opinion between those who claim to be on the far left and those who say they are far right are not much different: anti-EU, anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, anti-NATO, anti-USA, anti-Semitic and anti-immigration (though those voters of the Left would never admit publicly to the last two). Above all they are united in their loathing for Macron and all he stands for (substitute pro for anti in the list above).

This is a battle between the centre on one side and both extremes on the other. The election will probably be decided on Wednesday 20 April when the two candidates meet for the only televised debate between them (just after Only Connect is published!). In 2017 Le Pen performed disastrously. She will do much better this time. At 20.00 French time on Sunday 24 April we will know if it was good enough to beat Macron and become the first Madame La Présidente de la République française (and cause consternation at the l'Académie française, whose forty immortels insist that one cannot "feminise" Le Président).

*Party names are now calls to action: Mélenchon leads La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), Zemmour Reconquête (Reconquest), Macron La République en Marche (The Republic on the Move). The splendidly sulphurous Jean Lassalle (“I am considered [by the elite] as a useless and shitty candidate.”), an advocate for “an authentic and rural France”, heads Résistons! (Let’s Resist). He got 3.13% of the national vote and came fourth in Vayrac with 7.68% of the voix.

**I can imagine many of you asking what a haberdashery is and wondering how a village of 1300 people can have such specialised shops. A haberdasher sells everything you need to make clothes. The village also has a chocolate and patisserie shop, two bakers, a butcher, a newsagent, a pottery, a cinema, a post office, three eateries (I won't dignify them with the label 'restaurants'), a café, an IT shop, a farmers’ produce shop, an ironmongers, two banks, two insurance agencies, two estate agents, four hairdressers, a pharmacy, a clothes boutique, a florist, two garages, a supermarket and a twice-weekly open-air market. As my wife said when we arrived: “It’s like an English village in the 1950s.” More like the 1930s in my opinion.

A Cry of Anger from the Back of Beyond

(first published in Shaw Sheet magazine on 25 January, 2017)

When my wife and I first arrived in France in 2013, we rented a house on the southern edge of Brive-la-Gaillarde for seven months. Friends in other parts of France, let alone those in the UK, had difficulty locating Brive. Some still do. When we told a French banker living in Lille that Brive is a town of 47,000 people two and half hours on the motorway north of Toulouse and three hours east of Bordeaux, her instant response was “Mais, c’est au bout du monde.” On our first trip with our Neighbourhood Association in Brive we visited une ferme en agriculture biologique on the northern edge of the upper Dordogne valley, 40 kilometres south-east of Brive. As we wended our way down to the farm one of the Brivistes exclaimed with some alarm “Oh, là, là! C’est au bout du monde.” In October of that year we moved into a house in a village only 8 kilometres from that farm. We continue to live happily at “the end of the world” or - a better translation - in the back of beyond (and, yes, the French do continue to say “Oh, là, là!”).

I was thus surprised to discover a few months ago that this rural area of slightly run-down yet still beautiful villages and small towns in the foothills of the Auvergne was the birthplace of a populist political movement whose name is still used to abuse modern-day politicians of the Right. And not just in France. Poujadist was one of those political labels I heard in my youth but was too lazy to find out what it meant. It was just another boo-word like fascist. Denis Healey accused Margaret Thatcher of being a “piggy-bank Poujadist” but I doubt if many British people understood what he meant. I certainly didn’t. Nigel Farage has been similarly labelled a British Pierre Poujade, although even the slightest knowledge of the two men would dispel any idea that they have much in common. Here in France Poujadisme is part of the political lexicon. A poujadiste is someone who hates big business, intellectuals, immigrants, big government, the Parisian political class and elites of any kind, and who regards the self-employed and the shopkeepers, tradespeople and peasants of rural and small-town France as the embodiments of French values. The word is undergoing a revival. Marine Le Pen and her Front National party have long been labelled as essentially Poujadiste. And French commentators are even comparing Trumpisme with Poujadisme. Yet not one French person I have asked seems to know much about Poujade himself and he appears to have been forgotten even in his birthplace.

So, who was Pierre Poujade? He was born in 1920 in St-Céré, a small market town on a tributary of the Dordogne River (and a twenty-minute drive from our village). For much of its existence St-Céré was a prosperous entrepôt between the mountains to the east and the lush valley to the west. But in 1921 the population had dropped from over 5000 a century earlier to just 2900. People had left for the cities and large industrial and mining areas in search of jobs. The death of so many young men in World War One had also hastened the closure of local factories and workshops. Poujade was the seventh child of an impoverished builder, who died when Pierre was seven. He had hoped to continue his education at a religious college in nearby Aurillac but his mother could not afford the fees. He did various jobs – working as an apprentice typesetter, a road mender, a docker and a grape picker. It was at this time he showed where his political sympathies lay; he was a member of the nationalist Parti Populaire Français led by the fascist Jacques Doriot. He joined the French air force in 1939 but was discharged because of illness. After the fall of France to Germany in 1940, St-Céré was within the part of the country governed by Marshal Pétain, who Poujade supported. But when the Germans occupied the whole of France in November 1942, he fled south, ending up in Algiers where he re-joined the French air force only to become ill again. In 1944, he married a nurse he had met in hospital. He ended the war in England where he had managed to join the Free French air force and stay healthy.

He returned to St-Céré, first working as a commercial traveller selling books before setting up his own book and stationery shop in 1948. He became a Gaullist town councillor. But then in 1952, in a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences, the French government offered a tax amnesty to those who had spirited their black-market money abroad. Free of investigating this form of tax evasion, French tax inspectors concentrated their efforts on checking the tax returns of a much easier and larger target – shopkeepers, tradespeople and small farmers. Half the French population was self-employed at this time, compared with 5% in the UK. In St-Céré, for example, there was a shop for every three families. Reports began to appear in newspapers of shops and small businesses across France closing down or going bankrupt, and even of people committing suicide.

On 21 July 1953 a Communist fellow councillor warned Poujade that two tax inspectors were due to arrive the next day. An emergency meeting of shopkeepers was called. They decided to refuse to be inspected, to complete any tax return or to pay any tax. On 22 July twenty-three shopkeepers barricaded their shops and eventually chased the two tax inspectors out of town. Within weeks similar tax strikes were recorded in sixty French départements. Poujade was behind many of them. He founded the Union de Défense des Commerçants et des Artisans (UDCA) and toured southern France in his van talking to the contacts he had made as a travelling salesman. He also recruited truck-drivers to spread his message across the country. By 1955 the UDCA claimed it had 400,000 members, whose subscriptions financed both a daily and a weekly newspaper. In January 1955 Poujade spoke to a rally of 100,000 people in Paris and threatened to launch a nation-wide tax strike. He also set up a political party, Union et Fraternité Française (UFF).

What was Poujade’s message? This is from a UFF poster in the January 1956 general election, in which the UFF won 11.5% of the vote and 52 seats in the Assembly:

If you are against being strangled by taxes, against the exploitation of man by man – Arise! Against the monopolies, owing allegiance to no nation, who ruin you and reduce you to subjection. Against the electoral monopolies who cheat you with your votes. Against the gang of exploiters who live from your labour and your savings. Rebel! Like you, we want justice: fiscal justice for the taxpayers, social justice for the workers.”

But the language of his speeches and of a book he published were anti-semitic, ultra-nationalist and anti-democratic. His movement was one of protest. He had few workable solutions. He soon fell out with his party’s deputies, nearly all of whom were shopkeepers like himself (mostly grocers), tradespeople, farmers, wine-growers and hoteliers. One of the first to break with him and go his own way was the youngest deputy in the Assembly, the 28 year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen, though he did not form the Front National until 1972.

Poujade became increasingly erratic in his behaviour. He demanded (and got) an audience with the Pope and opposed the Franco-British-Israeli attempt to take back control of the Suez Canal on the grounds that it was a Jewish plot and designed “to help the Queen of England.” He still called himself Le p’tit Pierre, defender of the “petits” and the “bonnes gens” but his detractors called him “Poujadolf”. Soon he was giving his support to De Gaulle once more. In 1961 he and his supporters got just 2.8% of the votes in Cantonal elections; he and his wife were defeated in St-Céré. The Poujadist movement did not disappear. He still spoke often in public and, thanks to his wife’s commercial skills, set up and ran a number of successful firms, many of them linked to his Poujadist network. In 2000 he expressed approval of the riots in France against fuel taxes. Shortly before he died in 2003 he campaigned for the development and use of a biofuel based on artichokes - a home-grown alternative to the products of the monopolistic “gros”.

There is an old postcard you can buy on e-bay of Poujade’s shop in St-Céré. Next time I go I shall see if I can identify exactly where it was. I know it was in the main street - rue de la République – a road still lined with independent shops, including the opticians we use and a saddler, who will also mend your shoes, cut you a new key and sell you a hat. There are some empty shops along the street but the tourists who fill the town’s beautiful medieval square and alleyways in the summer keep most of the businesses alive. Just. Of Poujade there is no sign. The history on the town’s website does not mention him. There is no equivalent of the UK’s blue plaque. Neither the existing stationer nor the bookshop next door acknowledge their predecessor. I wonder why. Is the town ashamed of him? In the brief period when he was a national, even international name, everyone knew where he had come from and who he spoke for. He really did speak for the “left-behind” and the “forgotten men and women” of France. Is it because he came from what the elites of France still sniffily call “au bout du monde” that so few remember him here? The man may be forgotten but Poujadisme won’t be. Especially when any country’s elite decides it does not need to know what is happening to the people in its backs of beyond.



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