10 May 2017

Why were so many Britons mad about Marine?


France is a foreign country; they do things oddly there. Grasp this and you may begin to understand the manner in which an element of the British Right disgraced itself during the French presidential elections.

You know what I mean. For many Europhobes, Emmanuel Macron’s thumping victory was a deflating disappointment. Of course, it couldn’t quite be admitted as such. Good form, which is to say the conventions of polite society, demanded that right-wing columnists acknowledge that Marine Le Pen was a sub-optimal standard bearer for the Right. She came with more baggage than might be thought ideal.

But, still, you know, however deplorable she might be – and here you didn’t need excellent hearing to catch the sound of throats being cleared – Le Pen was onto something. In the first place, she horrified all the right people and the enjoyment to be gained from your domestic opponents’ discomfort is a powerful, and endlessly pleasing, thing.

Just as Donald Trump’s election was worth savouring on account of the manner in which it made liberals squirm, so elements of the Right – including some who should have known better – enjoyed a similar frisson watching Le Pen set about Macron and, more generally, an entire continent’s worth of metropolitan liberal elitists. If Le Pen were to win, it would be liberals’ fault too, you know.

So when the Daily Mail hailed a “new French revolution” when Le Pen finished second in the first round of presidential voting, you could appreciate that, this time, the revolution might be, on balance, a pretty good idea.

If you needed an example of how a mania for Brexit has corrupted elements of the Right, then here you had it: the possibility France might be led by someone who, if we are being kind, could be reckoned a house-trained fascist, was fine and dandy because, look, Le Pen hates the EU too. Could Brexit be followed by, god help us, “Frexit”? For a certain type of Englishman there was something priapic about even thinking so.

A reminder, too, that some of the talk about a civilised, grown-up, respectful Brexit was only talk. For some, it is not enough that Britain succeed; the EU must fail. The days when Brexit was simply a common-sense reform of our constitutional arrangements are long gone, replaced by a desire to see the whole European house come tumbling down. That would, after all, be a sweet vindication of Britain’s decision to leave. Few things are more satisfying than vindication.

“Taking back control” is not enough; the euroweenies must appreciate that, to adapt 1066 And All That,  Britain was right and romantic while the Europeans remain wrong and revolting. Macron’s victory, the Telegraph worried, might be bad news for Britain because he’d take a tougher line on Brexit. A measure of parochial self-interest is unavoidable in these affairs but there remained something unseemly about the relish with which so many Eurosceptics welcomed the possibility of an election result that would have been disastrous for the EU and, not incidentally, for France too.

At least the broadsheet columnists largely allowed that Le Pen, though she might be onto something, remained just a little bit infra dig. No such reticence was felt in wilder, less respectable organisations. Leave.EU and Ukip’s remaining true believers didn’t bother to hide their full-throated support for Le Pen. When the mask dropped, you realise there was a mighty good reason the mask was worn in the first place.

“RIP France”, the official Leave.EU account tweeted, adding for gratuitous measure that “The French rolled over in 1940. This time they’ve saved Germany the fuel and bullets”. Even by their standards, this was a new low. But then it is abundantly clear that Farage and his remaining crew are now little more than the carnival barker’s vision of a carnival barker in some future dystopian world in which hustlers have been stripped of all their natural dignity.

But you could see why they were so attracted to Le Pen, right enough.

France’s difficulty, mind you, is often England’s satisfaction. The Englishman’s ineffable, if often also self-righteous, sense of superiority when confronted by all things French has always struck me as being an obvious example of the dangers inherent in protesting just a little too much. Lurking beneath all this John Bullism lurks the nagging apprehension that, just perhaps, the French might be onto something. For all their foibles, indeed for all their refusal to admit the evident benefits of the Anglo-Saxon life, even the most beefy-brained Englishman must sometimes wonder if the French might sometimes have a point.

But then it is precisely because England and France are so different that they are so alike. Each has a certain idea of itself, after all, and a conviction that the other is hopelessly, if also fascinatingly, wrong.

Macron’s victory was also a triumph for normalcy, however and, in abnormal times, this now has the power to shock. Perhaps that helps explain why so many swiftly did their best to downplay his victory. Look how many French voters abstained, they said, noting that this compromised the grandeur and scale of Macron’s success. These same sages, I assume, will not pause to ponder what it will say about Britain when an equal or greater number of British voters do not bother to exercise their democratic rights next month.

Even if, grudgingly, we admit that Macron won and that his victory really does count, it is important to remember that it is only a short-term triumph. The problems – sorry, the profound problems – France faces have not gone away. And nor will they. Indeed they may be exacerbated by Macron, making his triumph a pyrrhic one and thereby increasing the likelihood of an even greater political cataclysm further down the line.

Well, c’est vrai that France has no need to go in search of further difficulties. Nonetheless I cannot help noting that an element of the Anglophone Right has spent the last 20 years predicting the imminent demise of the French way of doing things. For the whole of this century, it seems, France has been in a state of permanent crisis. Unless the French accept the error of their Frenchness, things will have to get worse before they can get better.

Yet, despite this, France muddles along. The republic still stands. The idea of French distinctiveness remains viable even in an inter-connected era of globalisation. France endures. And the chief lesson to be drawn from Macron’s triumph – in both rounds of the Presidential election – is that the French appreciate that for things to remain the same, things will have to change. Macron may fail but by electing him, the French have shown the seriousness of their intent. That’s something British Conservatives should welcome. A vindication of France, yes, but also of decency.

Alex Massie is a political commentator