The late Harold McMillan once remonstrated with Oswald Mosely about his rather absurd attempt to import Nazi militarism into British politics. “When British people take to the streets”, he said, “they do so in tweed jackets and flannel trousers, not black shirts”. A similar rejection of strident politics was expressed by PG Wodehouse, whose Bertie Wooster encountered an unpleasant but absurd crypto-fascistic leader Sir Roderick Spode Leader of “the Black Shorts”.
Britain has its own way of taking down such figures, which is why we don’t tend to have them succeed: it is why there is absurdity in some of the more extravagant abuse of UKIP and its affable leader, who , it must be said, would be most unlikely to leave a beer hall to take to the streets. Nobody has been attacked by UKIP supporters, who, unlike its more extreme opponents like, say, Occupy or the “Anti-Fascist Union” have never gone in for storming buildings, fighting the police or breaking windows.
This is not going to be the case in every European country which rejects the inevitable economic failures of the Left. In countries which do not share our history and culture it can be a rather more extreme affair, and inevitably it is not always mildly defeatable by Wodehousian wit.
In France people have turned to the Front National which has been around for many years without ever looking like making the progress we saw last night. Those who conflate the UK and French expression of anti-EU sentiment betray not only a lack of understanding of the British phenomenon, but also the French.
The French right has a long and specific heritage. Probably every country has.
From the days of the French revolution, there was a monarchist rump. The secular anti-clericalism exposed a conservative Catholic element that was not always choosy in its bedfellows. The immigration stimulated by Eastern European pogroms brought a latent anti-Semitism to the surface, which saw expression in the Dreyfus trial. The patriotism of the First World War saw the unemployed congregating into politicised ex-military associations which were very different from our own benign British Legion.
The humiliating collapse of France in 1940 resulted in an attempt to retrieve a spurious “honour” by creating a fiction that they had accommodated Hitler rather than been routed, aformer National hero Philippe Petain led a movement which was not so very different to our own “Stop the War Coalition” which saw first Vichy France and then the splitting of the right into Petainist and Gaullists.
Post war, De Gaulle re-built France and the Common Market upon the fiction that “France had liberated herself”: this meant he had to exclude the Anglo-influence which stood as an uncomfortable reminder of the truth. He swiftly ran into trouble with Algeria which is pivotal in understanding the rise of the NF.
Algeria had been the bastion of a Free undefeated France. Metropolitan. Most British people do not know that it was a part of Metropolitan France. Had it not secured independence, France would already have an Islamic country. It fought a bitter war for Independence and expelled 900,000 “Pied Noir” – French settlers who settled Southern France who brought their own perspectives and resentments back to the mother country.
This was symbolic. To lose that part of France which had preserved honour however imperfectly, whilst Metropolitan France collaborated was dreadful for the national psyche.
it was from that Algerian war which cost 100,000 French casualties which formed the wounded Jean Marie Le Pen who created the National Front. It was a dirty war which France still finds difficulty in addressing honestly.
Unlike the UK’s de-colonisation there was a renewed and deep sense of national shame at losing part of the mother country with Algerian independence.
Within that same generation , the Poujardist movement appealed to those who felt excluded from crony capitalism, big government and powerful Trades Unionism. It drew in small businessmen, the taxi driver, the plumber, and shopkeepers in much the way that a Lady Thatcher delineated her constituency.
Given this ( albeit briefly sketched ) history, French responses to immigration and modern austerity will be different from the UK experience.
Britain needed a workforce from its commonwealth and invited it in. Nearly 2million Frenchmen fought to to keep “Algerie Francais”; when they now see significant societal change in its inner cities from those who rejected France -and now come, legally or other wise – their response is very history specific.
Austerity compounds the problem especially amongst those excluded from the EU gravy train or outside a very cushioned life secured by the strong French trades unions.
Paradoxically for those in the UK driving the secular agenda, France’s secular narrative presents a very real intensifier of the problem.
Liberty Equality and Fraternity appear to be very progressive values, but it is something rather less liberal in its application. There remains an anti-clericalism that once expressed itself in Diderot’s phrase that ” Man will not be free until the last King has been strangled with the entrails if the last priest.” Substitute “Emir” and ” Mullah” and you begin to see the measure of the problem.
The ideal of the French State is rooted not in multi-culturalism but omni-culturalism. That culture is essentially that of the Enlightenment in its French form. Not the low key State-power-averse of the USA or the very light touch Minarchism/Established Church of Britain.
It offends France that women wear the burka. It offends France that the Mosque has stronger claims.
On a European scale there are other tensions.
EU is the fulfilment of Bonarpartism with its elite, its “rationalism”, its bureaucratic regulation, even its aspiration for a European Army. The first European Army was Bonapart’s with its Poles Irish Spaniards, Italians augmenting its French core in considerable numbers.
This loss of French identity in the EU was acceptable for one reason only. It was a product of French intellectualism which harnessed the economic power of Germany into its service through guilt rather than reparations.
Whilst it worked, France could accept the compromise. Now it is not working. The French State cannot afford its social security aspirations. Germany is both less guilt ridden. It has moreover, absorbed many of its former countrymen who do not have such fond memories of the USSR as many on the old French Left.
With the perception of failure growing and rampant youth unemployment, a National Front sanitised by the smiling face of Marine Le Pen has broken through reviving a variety of old attitudes, loyalties and aspirations.
This is why David Cameron’s hopes to reform the EU is probably unrealistic.
France cannot, emotionally, bear the triumph of Anglosphere ideas again.
Seeing the UK economy climb above the French is hard. They cannot admit the failure of Jean Monet’s project for to do so would be another humiliation for the French intellectual heritage on which the country prides itself. Whilst some try one more time to make it work, whilst not allowing Britain to remake the EU in its free market image, others will go back to older roots seeking the glories of an autonomous France once more.
France is like an abused child which has not yet fully examined its recent past, much less come to terms with it. We should not be surprised at its bad behaviour through the election result. To equate its very Gallic provenance with UKIP is to betray a significant lack of historical perspective.
This is a very French Tea Party.