Robert Zaretsky: Le Parti Thé

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, is the author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life.”]

More than 100,000 angry citizens united in the nation’s capital to take their country back: back from the tax collector and the political and financial elites, back from bureaucrats and backroom wheelers and dealers and, more elusively and alarmingly, back from those who, well, were not like them....

...[T]his scene didn’t take place at the Tea Party demonstration in Washington last year. These protesters were gathered in France a half-century ago: Last week was the 55th anniversary of the mass demonstration in Paris of the Poujadist movement, a phenomenon that bears a close resemblance to our own Tea Party....

Ever since the nation’s liberation in 1945, a deep division had run down the middle of the French ideological spectrum: the Gaullists and Catholics on the one side, the Communists and their fellow travelers on the other. The political center had evaporated in the crucible of the cold war. The parliamentary system became ever more dysfunctional, lurching from one crisis to another as the competing parties accused one another of working against the interests of the man in the street.

The man (and woman) in the street had a different take. Neither the traditional right nor left seemed interested in his plight. Inflation dogged his heels and the influx of consumer and cultural goods from America breathed ever more warmly on his neck. Yet in the face of this widespread anxiety, the professional political class seemed indifferent. At this critical moment, Pierre Poujade leapt onto the national stage.

A stationer in Saint-Céré, a small town in southwestern France, Poujade mobilized his fellow shopkeepers against government tax inspectors in 1953. He found a ready audience: le petit commerçant was increasingly squeezed between the spread of chain stores and a heavy-handed state bureaucracy.

Poujade (who was, of course, the satisfied recipient of many state benefits, from retirement pensions to health insurance) channeled the swelling of popular resentment by creating the Union for the Defense of Shopkeepers and Artisans. By the end of the year, membership had rocketed, transforming the group from a provincial curiosity to a real and present danger to politics as usual.

Short and barrel-chested — he had once been a dockworker — Poujade had a booming voice that amplified the anxiety of his populist followers. France’s woes, he declared, were due to an urbane and urban professional class that had “lost all contact with the real world.” In his autobiography, titled “I’ve Chosen to Fight,” Poujade styled himself as a simple man of the people who had entered politics for selfless and patriotic reasons.

The real France, he insisted, was found not in Paris, but in small towns and on farms. It was certainly not found in the person of France’s most promising politician, Pierre Mendès-France, who as prime minister had acted on many of his campaign promises for meaningful economic and political change. For Poujade, the young and cerebral Mendès-France, a Sephardic Jew whose family had lived in France for several generations, was and would always be a foreigner....

...Their tactics, if not their platform — they did not, in fact, have one — worked. Poujade’s party won more than 10 percent of the votes, taking more than 50 seats in the National Assembly.

The election, though, proved to be Poujade’s swan song. He had demanded the nation’s ear, but once he and his fellow deputies had it, they had nothing substantive to say. Slogans and placards were poor preparation for governance, and the group’s rank and file soon either retreated from the political arena or joined the traditional right....

Historical parallelism is the duct tape of my profession: we apply it to the most disparate things. Sooner or later the tape frays, revealing unique fissures that require individual attention. Perhaps this is the case with the Poujadists and the Tea Partiers... In both instances, however, the despair and disconnect with politics seem similarly great and real, as does the common tendency to grasp for simple solutions to complex problems.

Tea Party activists might find it infuriating ever to be compared to the nation they consider the anti-America. But French observers of our country may be forgiven if they feel a certain déjà vu when they see a movement that brings nothing to the ballot box except anger.

Read entire article at NYT

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