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Wake up, Sarko

As two million demonstrators proved last month, the French are furious, and not only about losing th

There have been many strikes and demonstrations in France since Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in May 2007, but none reached the two million mark like the one on 29 January. For a whole day, more than 200 demonstrations were organised throughout France. By lunchtime, one million people had marched, with the first-estimate figures impressive enough: 200,000 in the streets of Marseilles, 80,000 in Toulouse, 30,000 in Bordeaux, 20,000 in Orléans and Clermont-Ferrand. At 2pm, in the centre of Paris, huge crowds were gathering to walk towards République and end the protest in Opéra. It took six hours for the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to walk the four kilometres from Bastille to Opéra. A radicalised few, about 200 of them, wanted to push the protest up to the Elysée Palace but tear gas and heavy-handed riot police stopped them.

Some demonstrated for the first time in their

lives and many were there “en famille”

Sarkozy, deriding a long French tradition, declared last year that "nobody takes notice any more when the French take to the streets". Since his election, he has indeed been very careful to present demonstrators as privileged "dinosaurs" from the public service, cut off from reality and the concerns of "the other France", the one which, according to him, "wakes up earlier and works harder". On 29 January, the French president had to eat his words. Although organised by a united front of the country's eight main trade unions, many demonstrators from the private sector had answered the calls for a national strike and abandoned their desks to vent their anger alongside personnel from hospitals, universities, schools, public TV and radio networks, as well as lawyers, magistrates, judges, postal workers and employees from public energy utilities such as EDF.

As well as trade unions, all parties from the left had also called for people to show the government their discontent: from the Socialist and Communist parties, the Workers League and the newly baptised Trotskyite movement Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, gathered around the young and charismatic figure, Olivier Besancenot, a 34-year-old postman. The diversity of the people represented on the streets made it clear that the demonstration had mobilised every age and social group, from teenagers to elderly pensioners, from supermarket checkout workers to university professors. Some demonstrated for the first time in their lives and many were there en famille. My generation, born in the mid-Seventies, has taken part in myriad local demos and at least half a dozen grandes manifestations (above one million): in 1986 against university reforms; in 1990 against anti-Semitism after a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in Carpentras in the south of France; in 1995 against Alain Juppé's reforms; in 2002 protesting at Jean-Marie Le Pen's presence at the second round of the presidential elections.

This time, sunny weather provided a radiant backdrop to the happenings and pranks of all descriptions which characterise grandes manifestations. Everybody in the crowd might be clear on one thing - the reason they are demonstrating - but the way they express it will be varied and inventive. A woman with a black wig, red lipstick and black sunglasses personified Rachida Dati, the former minister of justice, with a placard around her neck reading "Justice à vendre". A Sarkozy impersonator held three panting youths on a leash, representing "Health", "Education" and "Media". Quotes from Victor Hugo were painted in big black letters on ten-metre-long banners: "Quand on ouvre une école, on ferme une prison." ("When a school opens, a prison closes.") Stickers with the slogan "Rêve générale" (a pun on grève générale - general strike) were everywhere.

The success of this recent action is obvious to all, though it is more difficult to say how Sarkozy will react. At the time of going to press, he was expected to address the nation on television. He is expected to say that the current economic crisis affects the whole world and not only France, and that it would be inconceivable for his government to stop its reforms in their tracks. He will undoubtedly repeat his mantra: every government before him bowed to the streets, he won't. A meeting with the trade unions is planned for 9 February, though Sarkozy has been warned: if he does not provide them with a plan to boost consumer spending and announce a freeze on public service cuts, he should brace himself for yet another general strike and another wave of demonstrations. After 29 January, trade unions now feel they have a stronger hand, plus the support of 70 per cent of the population, a percentage even higher than during the 1995 three-week strikes which lead to Juppé's resignation.

One thing Sarkozy should be aware of is that the French are furious, and not only because they fear losing their jobs. Most people are extremely critical of his ill-conceived and rushed reforms, many passed by decree in parliament. They feel that traditional counter-forces that maintain the balance of power in a democracy have been systematically weakened. For instance, in parliament, a reform that is being fought by the opposition aims to restrict the amount of time spent debating bills, limiting the ability of the opposition to question the government and propose amendments - all in the name of efficiency.

In the education sector, tens of thousands of teachers have lost their jobs. University staff are also up in arms against a reform which they claim creates unaccountability and undermines the academic ethos - that is, the idea of research free of economic constraints. Forty-five per cent of lectures given at universities were cancelled due to the professors' strikes.

There is a new mood of democracy in France. Sarkozy and his government are entering troubled waters.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hopep to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.