THE MAN OF THE MOMENT
his service with the RAF, his battles with the tax collectors and bureaucrats, and his admiration for his British disciples
Tarbes, South West France PIERRE Poujade, the man whose name is a synonym for right-wing popular disruption and revolt in France, is mildly surprised to learn that it is suddenly on everyone's lips in Britain. But whatever our chattering classes may be saying about him, he is happy.
Poujadism is a word now used in its own right, detached from the half-for- gotten uprising of shopkeep- ers and artisans he led in the 1950s; it has joined the many French catchwords culled from centuries of rebellions by paysans, parliamentarians and princes alike, agin the government, and especially agin the fisc: Jacquerie, Fronde, Croquants, sans-culottes.
Poujade the man is also still very much alive. I found him this week, high in the Pyrenees, where the winter cold is already in the air and the towering peaks are shrouded in mist presaging snow. Normally he lives on a hilltop in the Aveyron, on the southern edge of the Massif Central, where it is marginally warmer and, he claims, the views are even better. But he was visiting his son (a farmer who reputedly makes the best foie gras in the region) and inspecting his second great-grandchild.
A robust man, with the powerful physique of a retired athlete, he looks 15 years younger than his age and has the voice and charisma of a gifted country priest or an actor. He seems to have too much humour and sense of the absurd to be a politician, which perhaps partly explains why he has remained in the role of eternal subversive — one who leads his troops to the gate of the citadel but doesn't storm it.
We sit at the table — keeping his family from their dinner — while he runs through the chronology of his extraordinary life, acting all the parts and adding extravagant gestures, like a one-man cabaret.
Adult life began with the war: Poujade escaped the Nazis via Spain and joined the Free French in London and later in North Africa. He was a trainee pilot in the US air force but was thrown out after being involved in a fight with military police; so he joined the RAF, an impressive experi- ence. 'The Americans made a pilot in nine months — sent him up to drop bombs willy-nilly. The French had good pilots, but in the RAF — that was to be a pilot . . . not a taxi-driver, eh?'
He abandoned the rigorous training when France was liberated, and with his Algerian- born wife, Yvette, and the first of their five children returned to France. (Yvette has the Legion d'honneur for her war record; she was the first woman to land on liberated French soil — in Corsica where she com- manded the ambulance corps.) In postwar France he could have become a gangster, he says. Instead he joined a Catholic book company and tramped the land selling lives of the saints out of a suit- case. 'Believe me, when you have been on the road selling the Life of Saint Elizabeth, you can sell anything!' He moved to a secular enterprise selling foreign fiction in translation and saved enough to open his own bookshop back home in Saint Cere, in the Lot department of South West France.
There Poujadism was born, on 23 July 1953. The dreaded tax inspectors were due, and those traders to be subjected to a con- trol — a fearsome trawl through every last centime in their accounts — shivered in their back rooms. The discovery of the most piffling abuse or inadvertent error, and the victim would be 'strangled, garrot- ted, ruined'. Poujade clutch- es his neck and feigns the agony involved.
Poujade was a member of the town council, and his communist adversary came puffing along on his bike. He was to be inspected. What was to be done? 'Well,' said Poujade, 'they'll put you through the moulinette and it will be me next. We must leave our knives in the cloak- room and tackle this togeth- er.' And thus was organised the first show of resistance.
`I became the spokesman because even then I had the reputation of being a big mouth,' he chuck- les. On inspection day he sounded the tocsin on the church bell, and the tax collectors arrived to find the whole village, including the cure, in the street. They filled the com- munist's shop and refused to let him pro- duce his accounts, even if he had wanted to.
`But,' cried the collectors, Padministra- tion [you have to have lived in France to understand the resonance of that octopoid being invoked against you] has decided that all the tax controls of the Lot will be done by the end of the month.'
`Tell the administration,' roared the 33- year-old Poujade, `that you have already finished. There will be no more controls.'
That first phase, he says now, 'that was real Poujadism — everyone shoulder-to- shoulder.' They had ras-le-bol — which means they had had it up to there: the ras- le-bol factor, always present in French life,
was the foundation of his movement, enabling him to lead the only meek and quiescent French class of small traders and businessmen to open revolt.
A year later Poujade could stalk the coun- try end to end among nearly a million mem- bers of his Union for the Defence of Shopkeepers and Craftsmen. He made the wonky Fourth Republic government trem- ble and panic; he led a march on Paris and filled the Velodrome d'Hiver, then the biggest arena in Paris with more than 20,000 seats, to overflowing for his speeches.
`If they don't change the law, we'll change the government' was the slogan, and the government believed it. Many con- cessions were granted, and, for a brief, heady time, the Poujadists held the admin- istration in thrall. Prefets did nothing with- out consulting them, ministers would not visit a region without their permission.
`Of course,' he says staidly, 'it could not last — it was a state within a state.' He could have led 10,000 armed war veterans down the Champs Elysees, but he seems to have had no real taste for grabbing power, preferring democracy. In the 1956 elections his movement won 53 seats and polled two and a half million votes.
When he attended the TUC in Blackpool in the mid-Fifties he was held in awe. His interview on British television was relayed on the big screen and the delegates fell silent to listen. He was that rare beast, a man who could rally others to rise up and follow him in large numbers. In his time he has duffed up taxmen, blown up their offices, fought with riot police, rallied a quarter of a million small shopkeepers to march on Paris to demand a new Estates General, and run a national election campaign from scratch without professional help. He has made and unmade governments and presidents.
So what went wrong? Why is he not the country's elder statesman instead of a guru on a hilltop and a word in the dictionary?
If had not made mistakes,' he reflects, France would not be the pagaille [mess] that it is today.' The worst of these, he reckons, was refus- ing to rescue the discredited Fourth Repub- lic by bringing his new blood into the government. Instead he backed de Gaulle whose prestige enabled him to put the huge capitalist system in place that we have still and which has led to all this magouille,' he says, slowly enunciating the French word for sleaze. De Gaulle, he hastens to add, was pure and straight himself, although in Eng- land he had gone a bit mad — 'He began to take himself for Jeanne d'Arc. . . .
His imitation of General de Gaulle talk- ing grandiloquently about `laa Fraaance' and Thist-woire' is hilarious. Relations between the two men were never easy. De Gaulle returned to power in 1958 with Poujadist support, but when the general offered him a choice of two ministries agriculture or commerce and industry Poujade refused repeatedly, because de Gaulle would not guarantee the conditions he wanted for small businesses. At one point, he recalls, Michael Debre, former prime minister, leapt to his feet shouting, Toujade! One does not argue with la France!' (France being personified by de Gaulle, of course.) `Moi, I am also France,' replied Poujade. Rebellious, ungovernable France with its 375 varieties of cheese.
From being a firebrand Poujade gradual- ly became an eminence grise, a reliable barometer of French conservative grass- roots feeling, one of the most influential men of postwar France, courted and con- sulted by every polticial leader and com- mentator. But he seems to have lacked a taste for power itself.
`Poujadism is not a political party; it has no philosophy, no doctrine, no religious affiliation. It is a movement for economic survival by little people harassed by the fist . . . all kinds of people — Catholics, Mus- lims, Jews, Protestants, atheists, commu- nists, and populism, pure and simple. Nothing to do with Right or Left.'
(One of the first Poujadist deputies was Jean-Marie Le Pen, later to found the National Front. Although he stayed with Poujade only for a few months, his involve- ment tarred Poujade with the extreme Right brush — a label he rejects utterly.) Poujade deserted de Gaulle over Alge- ria: France betrayed the Algerian people, Arabs most of all, he believes. And the Algerian revolution was orchestrated by the great petrol interests in connivance with certain corrupt politicians.
Georges Pompidou, also a grainy prod- uct of la France profonde, got on well with Poujade and patched things up between him and the General. Had he not died so soon, the greatest disaster, the presidency of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, might have been avoided. Poujade had backed Giscard on the strength of promises never kept; indeed, under Giscard in the 1970s, 400,000 small shops closed.
Which is why Poujade asked his appalled supporters to vote for Francois Mitterrand in 1981: 'I'd vote for the Devil rather than Giscard' was the headline in his newspaper. `Mind you,' he remarks with a wink, 'Mit-
terrand was no more a socialist than I was. Unlike Giscard, he kept his promises and we co-operated well.'
But the damage to the small shopkeepers had been done and he sees it now as impossible to repair. 'There are no little grocers left — just a few specialists. You'd need a brave government to bombard the supermarkets with taxes and revoke their delayed payment schedules.'
Some new leader will come to change things, but it won't be Jospin or Chirac. Poujade is boycotting the referendum on the reduction of the presidential mandate from seven to five years. °It is a nonsense — just something to distract us from other matters.'
He still warms to the notion of direct, physical action by the people. But he knows too well that it may lead nowhere on its own. The action of Josee Bove, France's new popular hero who has been given a three-month prison sentence for disman- tling a branch of McDonald's, is better than nothing. But more positive long-term strategy is called for.
For him, that would be the production of `green petrol' which has been his pet pro- ject for a decade — a product that would contain 15 per cent vegetable alcohol made from sugar beet and topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes). 'This would reduce the nation's oil bill by 15 per cent, help replant the million hectares of land lying fallow, create thousands of jobs in spin-off small businesses. Predictably, big farmers are against it. But all needs are up to 10,000 hectares and £30 million and he could launch the enterprise tomorrow. He has the experts ready and waiting.
`Strikes and blockades are all very well to attract attention and it's good for govern- ment to get a shock when they get too smug. But those people on the barricades may find that by the time they get home, the price will have gone up again.'
He was impressed by the spontaneous action in Britain. 'You never know, you British are slow, but once you get going you will probably be worse than us.' And he strikes a favourite Napoleonic pose.