Greece and France have defied the eurosceptics

Both countries voted for pro-European politics and confounded the anti-EU right.

So what does the eurosceptic elite, which controls most of the media, the governing party and has its representatives in both the Lib Dems and Labour, do now? For months, we have been told that "Eurogeddon" or "Grexit" was just round the corner. Lucky Britain with its pound and made-in-Britain recession was not involved as the dreadful Europeans, with the deadweight euro around their necks, would sink below the waves. The best and the brightest of monolingual English commentators flooded into the Plaka in Athens to sip their ouzo with their columns already written, explaining how the Greeks pulled the plug on the euro. The Greek people have let them down.

In the French election, the left-wing windbag, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was given star treatment by the BBC and English papers, who love a leftie as long as he beats up on Brussels. Then it was the turn of Alexis Tsipras. The Financial Times cleared away its usual stable of Nobel-prize winners on its comment pages to welcome the populist posturing of the new anti-Brussels oracle of Delphi. He said Greece would stay in the euro but not meet a single condition of continued EU help.

Both Mélenchon and Tsipras have a critique of the way the economy has been run in their countries and, more broadly, in Europe in recent years. They are right to reject the recession-generating austerity of British and German conservatives. But it is one thing to denounce 1930s economics, another to come up with policy that makes sense to a democratic electorate. In both France and Greece, voters had a second chance over multi-round elections to reflect and, in the end, they voted to reject the false prophets who offered simplistic solutions that could not work. They also rejected the advice from British pundits like Norman Lamont, Nigel Farage, David Owen, and nearly all press commentators, who insisted that the euro was all a dreadful mistake and the sooner Greece was booted out, the better.

There was generalised talk about the need for a referendum, promoted by both Tories and Labour, as if a single plebiscite (on what question exactly is never made clear) would settle the Europe question once and for all in British politics. Among our political and media elites there was an almost Trotskyist fervour of “the worse the better” as if a collapse into chaos of banks closing down and the euro being forcibly converted into drachmas or pesetas would be a ritual purging of Europe into a new entity approved by the bankers and bank-rollers of entrenched British euroscepticism.

But as so often, Europe failed to conform to the eurosceptic script. Both the Greeks and the French voted for pro-European middle-of-the-road politics. Neither the victory for the left in France or New Democracy’s win in Greece solves any of the underlying problems both countries face. Hard decisions have to be taken and there will be social unrest just as there was a year ago in Britain or as we suffer when doctors and bus drivers go on strike. There is no Brussels fix or German cash cow that can solve the democratic capitalist world’s core problem, one neither the US nor Europe will admit, namely that debt-driven economics and state-financing no longer works.

But just as the US keeps rolling on, so does Europe. Britain can join in a conversation about what needs to be done with the new MPs in Paris and Athens. Or we can believe the Greeks and French have made a terrible mistake and keep pumping eurosceptic iron, hoping the final crisis is only around the next corner.

UK Independence Party leader and MEP Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt