I would imagine the sigh of relief from Brussels can be detected in Paris tonight. As with the recent failure of Geert Wilders to claim victory in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s threat to win the French Presidency has been vanquished. Of course, over in EU Central, the potential panic wasn’t based on her far-right rhetoric and how it might impact upon those within France who don’t fall into her favoured demographic, but the explicit anti-EU bandwagon she’d attached herself to – a common thread amongst Europe’s contemporary far-right parties. In the wake of Brexit, the fear that the other leading Western European nations might follow suit and bring the whole bureaucratic house of cards crashing down appears to have been eased; but how long for, one wonders.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s petulant jibe at how the English language is losing its relevance on the continent a couple of days ago for some epitomised the arrogance of the unelected passengers on the Brussels gravy-train, whereas others might regard it as a tit-for-tat response to the equally combative approach of the right in both Westminster and on Fleet Street. It was almost reminiscent of when the host of the Eurovision Song Contest would make his or her announcements to the audience in French before being forced to repeat them in English – just so viewers knew which language took precedence. European harmony is certainly in short supply at the moment, but Juncker and his colleagues can take solace from the fact that, of the three key General Elections taking place in Europe this year, at least one of them has gone their way. And it’d be a major upset if the Germans don’t do likewise.

It’s probably true to say Britain never truly embraced the European project with the same verve as our continental neighbours; we were the cautious bass-player in the early Punk band who was the last member of the group to cut his hair and stop wearing flares – and even then, the barber and the boutique were approached with reluctance. If any member state was eventually going to bail out, it was bound to be Blighty; perhaps the real surprise is that it took so long before it happened, not that it actually did happen. For France to reach the same conclusion, however, would have been unthinkable until very recently. Then again, France’s all-encompassing enthusiasm for the European Union has been whittled away by similar factors that motivated some to vote Leave here last year.

Considering France has suffered more than most from Islamic terrorism in the last couple of years, the issue of immigration has unsurprisingly registered highly in this Presidential Election; Marine Le Pen, like Farage and Trump before her, has tapped into the neglected concerns of natives who, already victims of the post-2008 economic downturn, have naturally laid the blame at the door of globalisation and freedom-of-movement immigration. Le Pen has exploited this for her own gain, as any canny politician would, but it’s easily done when such a large demographic has been consistently ignored by the mainstream parties for so long. That neither Le Pen nor Macron belongs to a mainstream party speaks volumes as to this dissatisfaction with the political process.

Marine Le Pen has portrayed herself as a figure outside of the establishment, though it’s not as though she rose from humble beginnings and has entered the political arena overnight; she’s very much a member of an establishment, just not the establishment. However, she was able to play the outsider card on account of her opponent. Standing against Emmanuel Macron – former investment banker, ex-member of Hollande’s cabinet, liberal centrist and (crucially) pro-EU – the gift of Macron to Le Pen masks Macron’s own independence from the political establishment, leaving the Socialist Party and forming his own party, En Marche! By the way (just in case you were wondering), the exclamation mark is part of the party’s name.

Macron appears to be a rather bland professional politician in the Blair mould, espousing the kind of centrist rhetoric that’s certainly been discredited on this side of the Channel; in fact, the only thing I can see remotely interesting about him – other than (at 39) he’ll be France’s youngest-ever President – is that he married his former teacher, some twenty-odd years his senior, thus fulfilling the fantasies of many an adolescent boy. Were he a Brit and their positions were reversed, i.e. he’d been the former tutor who’d married a pupil, he could probably expect a knock on the door from Inspector Knacker and the Historical Fishing Party Squad; but they’re French, of course, and the French don’t get so hot under the collar about such things.

So, Le Pen may have lost this time round, but the challenge facing Macron, regardless of the blessing he’ll receive from Brussels, is to try to heal some of the gaping wounds French politicians have allowed to fester for a long time. If he doesn’t, he’ll find his opponent in 2017 (who is hardly the sort to disappear from the political scene with a whimper due to one defeat) will be more than ready to take him on again in 2022. The French electorate have resoundingly rejected the two dominant parties of the last half-century in this Presidential Election, so past loyalties can no longer be relied upon. Macron has quite a task on his hands, and if he isn’t capable of getting the job done, both he and his countrymen will suffer the consequences five years from now.

As for home soil, we’ve nothing to be smug about…

© The Editor


Apparently, 2017 is the first year since 1924 that General Elections have taken place in all three of Europe’s economic powerhouses – that is France, Germany and…yes…us. Back then, Édouard Herriot and his left-wing Cartel des Gauches alliance claimed victory in the French Legislative Election, Otto Wels led Germany’s Social Democratic Party to victory in the German Federal Election, and over here it was Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives who triumphed over Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour Government. The instability of Europe in the aftermath of the Great War was perhaps emphasised by the fact it was the second time German voters had been summoned to the polling booth that year, whilst in the UK, it was just ten months on from the last General Election; by contrast, it had been five years for French voters. However, these historical facts somewhat obscure the tumultuous changes our nearest continental neighbours underwent from 1789 to 1958.

From the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, France experienced more than a century of chopping (literally) and changing at the top. After King Louis met his maker via Madame Guillotine, there followed a short-lived series of substitutions for the monarchy – the National Constituent Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, the National Convention, and then the notorious Committee of Public Safety led by Robespierre, which was responsible for the infamous Terror; this was followed by the final Revolutionary Government, the Directory, which ended with Bonaparte’s seizure of power in a 1799 coup that resulted in the nation’s most successful general becoming First Consul.

Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor within five years of the coup and held onto power for another decade; Bonaparte’s abdication in 1814 led to a brief restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy via the corpulent Louis XVIII, brother of the executed XVI, who was temporarily usurped after Napoleon’s flight from exile in Elba. With Waterloo bringing to end the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Louis XVIII was back on the throne. He was succeeded by another Bourbon brother, Charles X, in 1824, though Charles was deposed during the July Revolution of 1830 and replaced by his cousin Louis Philippe. Louis himself was forced into exile during the 1848 Revolution, ironically following his predecessor to a safe haven across the Channel.

The Second Republic was proclaimed in the aftermath of 1848, with Bonaparte’s nephew first being elected President and then, when denied a second term, staging a coup that ended with him being crowned Emperor of the French (using the title Napoleon III). He reigned as Emperor for an impressive eighteen years, though his ambitions backfired during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, an event which marked a significant change in Central Europe’s balance of power. Prussia’s victory was a key factor in the unification of Germany five years later, whereas for France it marked the end of the country’s role as Europe’s dominant nation. From a Prussian perspective, it also served as revenge for the first Bonaparte’s brutal dismemberment of the German states over half-a-century before.

The Third Republic was proclaimed as Napoleon III followed a familiar path of English exile (where he died in 1873, buried in Hampshire). Paris was ruled by the radical Paris Commune – a collective Karl Marx referred to as ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – after the country’s defeat and was under siege from the regular French Army for two months until normality reasserted itself and came to term with France’s humiliation at Germany’s hands. This incarnation of France survived until the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1940 and the formation of the puppet Vichy Government.

The Fourth Republic was formed after the Second World War, but collapsed during the Algerian War of Independence in 1958; from its ashes rose the Fifth Republic, which is still the political system France is governed by today. Its architect was the leader of the Free French Forces whilst in exile during WWII, Charles de Gaulle, who was elected President and held onto power until being rejected in a referendum in 1969; he died a year later. Since his successor, Georges Pompidou, France has experienced a relatively stable transference of power via the ballot box, yet arrives at yet another crossroads today with serving President François Hollande not seeking re-election.

Unlike both Germany and the UK (not to mention Spain and Italy), after the Algerian crisis of the late 50s and early 60s, France largely avoided terrorist assaults on its home soil from the 1970s onwards. The sudden bloody incursion of Radical Islam into French life over the last couple of years has come as something of a shock to the country, which had long regarded itself as a secular multicultural melting pot, despite the grassroots rise of the far-right under the National Front leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The shooting dead of a policeman in Paris by an alleged Islamist terrorist on the eve of the first round of this year’s Presidential Elections could have an understandable bearing on events this weekend, especially where the National Front are concerned. Marine Le Pen has given it a facelift since she engineered the expulsion of her father from the party, but she remains the underdog while Emmanuel Macron, himself something of an outsider from the mainstream, is the bookies’ favourite. As someone who welcomed the Brexit result, Le Pen advocates French withdrawal from the EU; considering France was a prime-mover in the foundation of the EEC, this attitude reflects French fears over the increasing stature of Germany in Central Europe. Old enmities with France’s domineering neighbour have resurfaced in recent years, something that hasn’t necessarily benefitted France in the past.

If this whistle-stop tour through post-Revolutionary France amounts to anything, it’s a demonstration that the kind of uncertainty being portrayed as unprecedented amongst our Gallic cousins is nothing new if one takes the long view. But who takes the long view these days?

© The Editor


wildersMuting the volume on the television set is something of a habit. On the rare occasions I happen to be watching a programme on a commercial channel it’s second nature to press the mute button when the ads intrude; for those of you familiar with Virgin’s catch-up service, venturing into the realm of catch-up when searching for a missed show requires another press of mute in order to silence the cacophony of crap trailers on a loop that appear the second you enter that realm. Similarly, if the phone rings, it’s mute that’s called upon again; if it’s a programme I’m watching, I can still see the image albeit without the soundtrack.

This happened the other week when ‘Newsnight’ was about to begin; being distracted by the phone conversation, I looked up at the screen and seriously thought I was seeing a trailer for a new Harry Enfield series; Enfield was playing an unfamiliar suited and booted character being pursued by cameras, possibly a politician, with a bizarre haircut somewhere between boxing promoter Don King and early 60s Brit rocker Heinz. Then I saw the ‘Newsnight’ titles and realised it wasn’t Harry after all, but far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders. It didn’t seem quite as funny then.

Geert Wilders, he of the aforementioned peroxide mane, is the leader and founder of Holland’s Freedom Party, and is hoping to become Prime Minister of the Netherlands when their parliamentary elections take place three weeks from now. He’s made a name for himself by spouting simplistic, rabble-rousing sound-bites that he uses to galvanise the same marginalised natives that both Brexit and the triumph of Trump have been attributed to. His inflammatory opinions are hardly unique in his homeland, but the Dutch no longer have South Africa to act as a more conducive climate for their more extreme and outspoken sons. In 2017, they’re stuck with them. Another colonial enclave, the Dutch East Indies, forms half of Wilders’ lineage as his mother was Indonesian, so it’s true to say he has the old Dutch approach to governance in his blood.

Wilders has paid a price for his controversial public image. He lives surrounded by armed guards 24/7 for his own safety, with perennial death threats the consequence of having made shit-stirring into an art form by referring to Holland’s Moroccan population as ‘scum’ whilst promising to ban the Koran and close mosques should he succeed in his aim; however, the need to campaign has led to him emerging from hiding and adding to his contentious statements. They may garner him a devoted following, but render him a cult figure that has little appeal beyond circles that rarely recognise shades of grey.

Although Wilders describes himself as a right-wing liberal and has claimed his biggest political inspiration is Margaret Thatcher, his stated policies have naturally attracted a far-right following; it’s a wonder he doesn’t take to the stage with the strains of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ as a warm-up tune. Whatever salient points he may have to make about the various failures of mass immigration and assimilation of immigrants into Dutch society are utterly lost in the headline-grabbing cheap shots that are guaranteed to alienate as many as they attract. He advocates freedom of speech, which is laudable, and sees his own virtual imprisonment as evidence it is under threat; yet he contradicts the freedom of speech principle by advocating the banning of the Koran. It’s supposed to work both ways, as Voltaire pointed out over two-hundred years ago.

Wilders made a name for himself outside of the Netherlands with his 2008 film short, ‘Fitna’, which focused on the loathsome agenda of Radical Islam; amounting to fifteen minutes of stating the bleedin’ obvious, the film provoked predictable responses on both sides of the divide that Wilders would clearly prefer to remain intact. The extremist Islamists fell into his trap, as he knew they would, and then he was able to point to their reaction as an example of how he was right about Islam all along. Essentially, the film confirmed what we already knew and offered nothing that could be seen as a positive way out of a miserable cultural cul-de-sac.

A figure such as Wilders is symptomatic of a particular breed of European politician whose views, having been written off as beyond the pale for years, are now suddenly in synch with a Europe-wide craving to topple the ruling elite; but these views are straightforward old-school divide-and-rule tactics that acknowledge a problem without suggesting an alternative from which all concerned can benefit.

It’s hard, as with Marine Le Pen, not to regard Wilders as a cynical opportunist exploiting the current uncertainties in Europe; even if one admits there are genuine problems that excessive immigration can bring into communities, figures such as Le Pen and Wilders seem more content to fan the flames of intolerance rather than attempting to resolve the difficulties that have arisen in many European countries over the last decade. Tackling the latter is a far harder task than simply saying ‘ban the Koran’; much easier to appeal to concerns by adopting a ‘Shock Jock’ persona and telling certain sections of the electorate what they want to hear, opting for simple solutions to complex situations that require more than Wilders is capable of delivering.

© The Editor