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.
These weren’t the incensed Americans who helped elect Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race and who rallied around conservative candidates in the Illinois primary on Tuesday; this 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. For a brief moment, the movement threatened the very foundations of the French Republic. A comparison between France then and America now may be instructive.
In the 1950s, postwar reconstruction and the Marshall Plan transformed France, which had been largely rural and agricultural, into a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing nation. While many welcomed these sweeping social and economic changes — it was the era of Formica and frigos (refrigerators) — many others feared and resented them.
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.
By Jan. 24, 1955, when the shopkeepers’ group staged its huge rally in Paris, the movement’s nostalgic longing for a simpler time had veered toward violent anti-parliamentarianism. There were also overtones of anti-Americanism (rumors flew that Coca-Cola had bought Notre-Dame with the intention of turning its western façade into a billboard) and anti-Semitism. The group’s rallying cry — Sortez les sortants! (“Throw the bums out!”) — challenged the right as well as the left.
During the subsequent national elections, the Poujadists bulldozed their way into town meetings, shouting down opposing candidates and threatening violence: a grim rehearsal for Tea Party tactics during last year’s health care debates. 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.
By 1958, most Poujadists were ready to throw their support behind a far more impressive opponent of the Fourth Republic, Charles de Gaulle. When de Gaulle assumed power and held a referendum that replaced the parliamentary system with an authoritarian executive, Poujade’s former adherents overwhelmingly voted yes. As for Poujade himself, he had already become a footnote to French history.
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. Saint-Céré is far from Wasilla, Alaska; questioning Mendès-France’s origins is not quite the same as demanding President Obama’s birth certificate; the mendacity in the claim of France’s imminent coca-colonization is of a different order from that concerning the than the misinformation about death panels in the United States. 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.