Paper given to a seminar of the London Socialist Historians Group in November 2013.
I got the idea for this paper in the Spring, at the time of the UKIP gains in the local elections. The furore caused among the mainstream parties called back to mind a half forgotten memory from my youth, the shock and alarm produced internationally by the unexpected success of the Poujadist candidates in the French elections of 1956. Obviously UKIP is a very different phenomenon in a very different world, and my title was something of a provocation; I am not suggesting that there are any simple analogies that can be read off from the historical experience. But the thought of looking at the Poujadist experience cut across another more long-term concern of mine – the history of the French left, with particular reference to republicanism, nationalism and internationalism. So I thought it might be of some interest to see how the various currents of the French left reacted to the Poujadist breakthrough.
By the time of his death in 2003 Pierre Poujade was a forgotten man. After De Gaulle’s advent to power in 1958 neither he nor his organisation played any significant role in French politics. In 1981 he supported François Mitterrand’s campaign for the French presidency. If his name is mentioned today, other than in specialist academic journals, it is because his organisation helped to launch the young Jean-Marie Le Pen on his political career. Yet his movement has left its name in the dictionaries; the Shorter Oxford English dictionary defines Poujadism both as the philosophy of Pierre Poujade and, more generally, as “any organized protection of the interests of small business”.
Pierre Poujade was born in 1920 and in the 1930s was a supporter of Doriot, who split from the Communist Party to found an alternative party of the left but moved very rapidly to the right, ending up recruiting French soldiers to fight on the Russian front. When France was occupied in 1940, Poujade was initially a supporter of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government, but in 1942, when the Germans occupied the southern half of France, he went to Algeria to join the Free French, and later served with the RAF. It is not clear what led to this change in sympathies, and whether it was more than a desire to be on the winning side, but it makes it difficult to attribute a consistent right-wing pedigree to him.
After the war Poujade and his wife became owners of a newsagents’ shop in Saint-Céré in South-West France. He was therefore a petit-bourgeois in the strict sense of the term – and not in the way the term is widely used in Marxist discourse, where it seems to mean “I disagree with you and will probably expel you shortly”. The class to which he belonged – that of small shopkeepers, artisans and other owners of small businesses – was still a powerful force in 1950s France, where a large proportion of the population still lived in small villages. France in 1954 had 1,297,963 commercial establishments, half of which did not have a single waged employee. And it was a social group which had some strong grievances, especially in Southern France, where the benefits of the post-war boom were trickling down very slowly if at all.
A particular grievance was the taxation system, which, the small traders believed with some justice, weighed much more heavily on small businesses than on larger companies. In 1953 Poujade helped to organise a local action to disrupt the tax inspection of a small trader in Saint-Céré. The action had a remarkably rapid resonance, and within months Poujade was able to launch the UDCA [Union for the Defence of Tradespeople and Artisans], with himself as the undisputed leader. By 1954 the UDCA was making a national impact, with a large rally at the Vel’ d’Hiv’, a traditional home for large political rallies. It was attended by around fifteen thousand people.
To understand the impact made by Poujade’s movement, it is necessary to say a little about the overall political situation in France. France was now well into what have often been called the “Trente glorieuses”, the thirty years of the long post-war boom. But prosperity was still very unevenly distributed and modernisation of the economy was not running smoothly. France had been more or less permanently at war since 1939. Shortly after the Liberation from German occupation a war for national independence had begun in Indochina, which ended when France withdraw after the catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. But the defeat in Indochina sparked off an armed revolt in Algeria. Although the government did not recognise that this was a war until 1999, it was having a huge impact, since, unlike Indochina, it was being fought by conscripts and reservists. These were also the years of the Cold War; France had a large Communist Party, which could get around five million votes and controlled the largest trade-union federation, but which was isolated by all other political currents. Negotiations were under way to establish the Common Market, a group of six states which was the foundation of today’s European Community. And the struggle between defenders of secular education and supporters of Church schools was still very much alive.
Opinion polling was still quite new, but the IFOP (French Institute of Public Opinion) conducted a number of polls which give us some insight into political attitudes of the time. During the 1955 election campaign, IFOP asked voters what was the most important issue to be dealt with by the incoming government. 25% named North Africa, 15% wages and cost of living, and 9% East-West relations. Housing and monetary stability got 5% each, and taxation, Poujade’s central campaigning point, only 4%.
France’s problems were compounded by its parliamentary system. The Constitution of the Fourth Republic incorporated proportional representation, which, together with the peculiarities of the French social structure, produced a system of several political parties, none of which was capable of winning a majority on its own. So any government had to cobble up a majority of several parties. This was inherently unstable, as governments fell rapidly as soon as a key issue divided its constituent parts. Between 1946 and 1958 the Fourth Republic had twenty-three prime ministers – only two lasted more than a year, and some lasted only a few weeks.
In late 1955 prime minister Edgar Faure called an election rather earlier than was constitutionally required, a matter of some controversy. The French electoral system was complex. It was based on proportional representation using a list system for each département. This was further complicated by the system of apparentements, which perhaps translates best as political alliances. This meant that different party lists could declare themselves as being in alliance with each other. This entailed no commitment to a common programme or to future cooperation, but if lists in alliance had over fifty per cent of the vote in a particular constituency they took all the seats between them. The system had a very clear political purpose, to strengthen the parties of the centre left and centre right as against the “extremists”, the surviving supporters of Vichy on the far right and, more importantly, the Communists on the far left. No other party would make an alliance with Communists. To have a system that was so mathematically complicated that few voters and not all candidates understood it merely aggravated the problems of French democracy.
It was in this context that Poujade made his sudden turn to politics. It was apparently only at the time of the dissolution of Parliament in November 1955 that Poujade made the decision to present candidates in the forthcoming elections. This was a dramatic turnaround, for up to this point Poujade had always insisted that his movement was unpolitical and was solely an organisation defending the economic interests of small businesspeople. What was astonishing was how rapidly he turned his organisation into an effective political machine.
This meant a rapid transformation of the movement. His appeal could no longer be simply to his established base; as he put it: “It’s no longer just a question of tradespeople and artisans. Workers have difficulties. Peasants have difficulties. We shall all achieve salvation together. Or we shall all die together.” Poujade seems to have been a powerful and charismatic orator as well as a formidable organiser. But, in order to demonstrate that this was not to be about personal ambition, he did not himself stand as a candidate.
And in order to ensure that those who did stand as candidates did not capitulate to personal ambition or get their snouts in the trough, Poujade insisted throughout the campaign that those elected under his banner would be kept under strict discipline. As Le Monde reported from one of his election rallies: “The representatives of the people will have to obey blindly the orders issued by the national council of the movement. ‘The day one of them betrays’, repeats Poujade, and he insists this is to be taken literally, ‘he will be hanged’.”
In general, Poujade’s rhetoric was very different from that normally heard in election meetings; he told his supporters: “Our ancestors cut off the head of a king of France who had done much less harm than those who are ruling us at present.”
The central demand of the Poujade campaign was to be the convening of the Estates General. This was a cleverly chosen demand, although its implementation would have been problematic – how exactly the representatives of the Second Estate, the nobility, were to be chosen was unclear. But as every French person had learned in school, the convening of the Estates General in 1789 had led to the French Revolution. Yet as Poujade also pointed out, the Estates General was an institution “which for six hundred years had met when things were going badly in France”. So Poujade’s slogan held an appeal to both republicans and traditional conservatives. He told a Swiss journalist that “those elected on behalf of his movement would have the sole task of paralysing the National Assembly by a systematic boycott until the Estates General have been convened. ‘Then they will resign, and will be hanged if they don’t respect their commitments’.”
The elections took place on 2 January and the results astounded everyone. Out of 544 seats (elections were not held in Algeria because of the level of violence) the Poujadists took 51. (because of the complex election rules different sources give slightly different figures). 11% of the electorate had voted for the Poujadists. When this was added to 145 seats (25% of the vote) to the Communists this represented a very large proportion of the vote to the so-called “extremists”. The Poujadists had upset the applecart for a number of the parties of the centre, by cutting their vote and depriving them of the possibility of benefitting from apparentements. In particular their rise was accompanied by a sharp setback for the Social Republicans (De Gaulle’s party, though de Gaulle himself had withdrawn from political life), who had previously embodied distrust of the institutions of the Fourth Republic. They had also shown that they could win a substantial number of votes beyond their base in Southern France where conditions for small tradespeople were worst.
Opinion polling was more primitive in the 1950s, and the Poujadist success seems to have been largely unexpected. There seems to have been a major surge in the last few days before polling. Two weeks before polling the distinguished political analyst of Le Monde, Jacques Fauvet, predicted about ten seats for Poujade. A few days later, Poujade himself, obviously trying to talk the result up, foresaw between thirty and fifty. The day before the poll the prefect of the Isère département sent a report to the Ministry of the Interior in which he stated confidently: “Poujadism will not have the slightest success in my département.” Two Poujadists were elected there with 55,000 votes.
Poujadism now became a nine days wonder. The popular picture magazine Paris-Match devoted features to the life of Poujade and his wife in all four January issues. The result was noted all round the world. From Washington United Press reported: “The impressive success of the Poujade movement (it was only expected to get about ten seats) has been a complete and unpleasant surprise for official circles in Washington, who think a Popular Front may be established within a few months …. There is a prevailing impression that Poujade, by winning the support of the non-Communist malcontents, has contributed to the success of the Moscow party, and prevented the formation of the centre right majority which was expected, and consequently has deprived France of any hope of a stable government.”
In London the New Statesman was equally alarmed, though from a slightly different perspective:
A record poll reveals that two in every five Frenchmen voted against the parliamentary system. In the new assembly, democracy is poised on a razor’s edge. On the left stands a large bloc of 150 Communist deputies, pledged to the totalitarian state. On the right are 50 of M Poujade’s street-corner ruffians, with no policy except the assembly’s destruction…..
The revolt of the Poujadists – encouraged by the flagrant indiscipline of France’s generals and colonial administrators – is aimed at the very fabric of the state, and it is gathering momentum. Can the republic survive five more years of shifting majorities and paralysed governments?…..
The Poujadists’ 2.5 million votes are there as a permanent warning that five more years of broken promises and political stagnation can fling open the door to fascism.
The progress of the campaign revealed a number of aspects of the politics and strategy of the Poujade movement. Firstly, it claimed repeatedly and vociferously to be apolitical, and insisted that it was neither of the left nor of the right.
Secondly, it was in no way a democratic movement; Poujade, whose threats to hang disobedient deputies I’ve already mentioned, laid down the political line. One of his deputies, Léger, a dairyman from Le Havre stated: “Politics isn’t for me …. Politics is Pierrot’s job. I’ll do what he tells me to do.”
Thirdly, the Poujadist movement was unashamedly violent. During the election campaign it disrupted and broke up meetings of its political opponents. In particular the meetings of François Mitterrand were systematically targeted. Much of the violence was organised by a Paris law student and relatively new ally of Poujade’s, the young Jean-Marie Le Pen, who drove Mendès-France off the stage at the Mutualité and prevented Mitterrand holding a meeting.. Le Pen had a long record of attacking Communist – and Trotskyist – meetings with gangs of cudgel-wielding thugs.
Poujade and Le Pen had allied together and Le Pen was enabled to win his first parliamentary seat. But there remained differences between them, which would eventually lead to a break. Poujade tended to remain within the republican tradition, while Le Pen tended to use the rhetoric of the Nation. And Le Pen put much more stress on defence of France’s colonial empire and on militarism.
Le Pen used a more violent rhetoric in his election speeches. “We shouldn’t greet the retiring deputies by pelting them with tomatoes, but with Thomson guns.” At another meeting he declared: “It is necessary and normal that a certain number of people should pay with their flesh for the massacre and ruin of the country.”
Anti-Semitism was widespread among the Poujadists. It was common to attack politicians as Jewish when they were not; Poujade claimed the real name of Jacques Soustelle, a Gaullist of French Protestant origin, was Ben-Soussa. A particular target was Pierre Mendès-France, a former Prime Minister who had signed the Geneva agreements ending the Indochina war. As Kristin Ross notes: “Mendès-France, the anti-Poujade figure of his age and a Jew, figured prominently in the Poujadist imaginary. Poujade was fond of stating that ‘our fathers, who went to the bistros, were at Verdun and Mendès wasn’t there’; another more succinct Poujadist slogan was ‘Mendès back to Jerusalem’.” (Mendès-France was in fact descended from a Portuguese Jewish family that had lived in France since the sixteenth century. )
Poujade’s main grievance against Mendès-France seems to have been his attempt to promote measures against alcoholism. To Poujade this seemed like a direct attack on his café-owning supporters. Addressing Mendès-France, he stated: “If you had a drop of Gallic blood in your veins, you would never have dared, you, the representative of our France, a world producer of wines and champagne, to have yourself served with a glass of milk at an international reception! That day, Monsieur Mendès, every Frenchman got a slap in the face.” Poujade always denied being a racist, using the “some of my best friends” argument and citing a Jewish militant in UDCA called Kauffman
The Poujadist movement tended to defend the preservation of the French colonial empire, although some members, like Le Pen, were much keener on this than those who had joined for economic reasons. Their position was sometimes ambiguous, and they voted against special powers for Algeria in the Spring of 1956. In Algeria itself the Poujadists naturally moved closer to the “French Algeria” elements; when Guy Mollet, newly appointed Prime Minister, visited Algiers in February 1956, he was pelted with tomatoes by settlers who feared that he might sell them out; this was organised by Gaullists, but the local Poujadists took part.
As for the emerging Common Market, Poujade was surprisingly cautious (in sharp contrast to UKIP). At a pre-election press conference, asked about the Europe of the Six, as it was then known, he simply replied: “That’s a territory that you won’t lead me on to.”
For the French left, Poujadism was a disconcerting and disruptive element which it had to try to understand and relate to. Often it seemed as if the left was trying to fit Poujadism into its already existing strategy, rather than to examine what was new and original in the movement.
The attitude of the French Communist Party, the biggest and most disciplined elements of the French left, was complex. Initially the Communists were friendly towards Poujade; his very first action in Saint-Céré was organised jointly with a blacksmith called Frégeac, who is said to have been a Communist.
When Poujade held his first big rally in Paris in 1955 the Communist daily L’Humanité gave him a rave review on its front page. The highly sympathetic reporter quoted Poujade as saying “Lie down to die or stand up to live; that’s the choice. As for us, we’re standing up to live.” The report noted the roar of approval that this produced: “And fifteen thousand artisans and tradespeople from all over France stood up, dignified, determined and enthusiastic. Delegates of tens and tens of thousands organised in 67 départements, yes, they agreed, yes, they wanted to live, yes they intended to continue the struggle in unity against the abuses of excessive taxation, and for a truly just taxation system.”
This fitted the Communist Party view that peasants and petits-bourgeois were the natural allies of the working class; the CP may even have hoped to take over the UDCA and make it into a satellite organisation. Poujade would have none of that, and he developed in a direction rather different from what the CP had hoped for. But it was only in October 1955, a few months before the election, that the CP publicly announced its break with Poujade.
On 1 October 1955 L‘Humanité carried a front-page article by Waldeck Rochet (a future leader of the party). This noted that the CP had always supported the demands of the small tradespeople and artisans against an unjust taxation system. However, Waldeck Rochet noted that Poujade now seemed to have wider political ambitions which conflicted with the CP. In particular Waldeck Rochet argued that Poujade failed to recognise the role of the CP and was even planning to organise against it:
Poujade violently attacks all political partied without distinction, without taking any account of the actions of each of them, and above all without making the distinction between the parties of the bourgeoisie which are responsible for the present situation and the party of the working class, for which he reserves a good part of his attacks.
Henceforth Poujade no longer restricts his ambitions to organising tradespeople and artisans, but he is now trying to build support among workers and peasants, by engaging in a demagogic agitation towards them with the aim of turning them away from their organisations, of dividing and deceiving them.
And he accused Poujade of trying to draw his support into “an adventurist enterprise of fascist character”. 
This characterisation of Poujade as a fascist was to be much developed after the election results. To understand this it is necessary to see it in context. Central to the Communist Party strategy in the election had been the demand for a new Popular Front. It was just twenty years since the election of the Popular Front of 1936, when an alliance of Communists, Socialists and Radicals had won a majority, though the Communists had not participated in government. This certainly had a degree of resonance with part of the electorate, although the Communist version of events rather glossed over the facts that the main economic gains of the Popular Front had been the result of a general strike with factory occupations rather than of the Popular Front’s legislative programme; and that the National Assembly elected in 1936 had handed over power to Pétain in 1940.
Ever since the Communist Party had been thrown out of government in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, all other parties had refused to include them in a governmental combination, which, given that the Communists had the support of nearly a quarter of the electorate, made establishing a stable majority even more difficult. The 1956 results would have made possible a government based on the Communists, Socialists and the Mendès-France wing of the Radicals. However, there was no chance that either the Socialists or Mendès-France would accept this.
The 1936 Popular Front had been formed in reaction to Hitler’s coming to power in Germany and the rise of fascism in France. So the existence of a fascist threat was actually quite useful to the Communist Party in developing its demand for a new Popular Front. So the Communist Party, and the CGT, the trade union it controlled, began a vigorous campaign against Poujade, organising counter-demonstrations. He was called “Poujaddolph” , a Nazi, a fascist, a Hitlerite and a Francoite. On 5 March 1956 his opponents prevented him addressing a meeting in Toulouse. Such language had a real resonance in a country that had been under Nazi occupation just over ten years earlier.
But always the stress was on the need for a Popular Front and the role of the Socialist Party in refusing this. On 7 January Julien Dubroc told readers of L’Humanité that the blame for Poujade’s success could be attributed to the Socialist Party’s failure to make an electoral alliance. He went on: “As for the relative success of Poujade, applauded by all the Vichyites and all the anti-Semites in France, it is comparable to the relative success of La Rocque [leader of the right-wing Croix de Feu, prominent at the time of the Popular Front], it is the Popular Front that will dispel it. And not this swamp which claims it can triumph over fascism without the aid of the Communists.”
The “swamp” referred to by Dubroc was the “Republican Front”. This was an electoral alliance cobbled up between four parties of the centre left – the Socialist Party, Mitterrand’s UDSR [Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance], the left Radicals led by Mendès-France and the Social Republicans [former Gaullists]. Jacques Fauvet, a very astute political commentator, later commented:
The “Republican Front” was an advertising slogan rather than a political formula; it was launched hastily without a contract or a programme. The expression was coined by the friends of M. Mendès-France. Its sole official manifestation was the publication of two statements signed by the leaders of the four theoretically associated parties [Mendès-France, Mollet, Mitterrand, Chaban-Delmas]. Moreover these four protagonists took good care not to set an example by concluding alliances in their own constituencies!
The constituents of the Republican Front also, though less systematically than the Communists, found it useful to denounce Poujade as a “fascist”. Thus Le Populaire, paper of the Socialist Party, declared that the vast majority of the French people wanted change: “Those who are republicans have voted for the democratic left. Those who aren’t republicans, those who hitherto had completely lacked interest in public affairs have awoken … to vote against the Republic.” Here too the Poujadists were described as fascists.
Mendès-France, while not calling the Poujadists fascists, found it useful to summon up the Poujadist threat:
It would be a grave error to underestimate the danger of the Poujadist rise. Only a policy of reforms, a policy of rebuilding carried out consistently on all levels, in short the policy of the Republican Front, by restoring confidence in the Republic and hope in the destiny of France, can make the trouble-makers unable to do more harm.
In other words, the only hope is Mendes-France as prime minister.
François Mitterrand was rather more cautious. True, in the election period he denounced Poujadism as “a resurrection of backstairs fascism”, but he had been provoked by the fact that they were systematically disrupting his meetings. But in a pre-election cabinet meeting he is reported to have said “If Poujade has thousands of people ready to go to prison, we can’t do anything against them.” Mitterrand always had a good sense of the balance of forces. And in the aftermath of the election his comments were cautious:
….the Poujadist advance … shows that when the Gaullist tide receded, it left behind it a certain discontent with the regime. It is certain that, much more than the number of deputies of this new party, the social and political phenomenon it reveals must be studied closely.
Mitterrand was an intelligent man, who saw that Poujadism was a symptom of a real problem. He was also a shrewd political operator, who was keeping his options open for political alliances that might have to be made.
One of the main publications promoting the Republican Front was the weekly L’Express, which from October until after the elections became a daily. After the election results were known, L’Express too took up the argument that the Poujadists were fascists:
The foreign press, which judges things with more distance than we can, reminds us that Hitler’s movement began in the same way. So let’s take advantage of the lessons of history.
And basing itself on Poujade’s rather theatrical promise that disobedient deputies would be hanged, L’Express demanded that the election of the Poujadists be annulled as unconstitutional.
A further article declared that Poujade’s new newspaper, Fraternité française, “removed all remaining doubts about the organisation’s orientation ….. The methods of Poujade’s technique are tried and tested; they were used in Italy by Mussolini and in Germany by Hitler, among others. They are the classic methods of fascism at its birth: diffamation, racism and anti-republicanism.”
L’Express, then, found it just as useful as the CP to point to the fascist threat. The only difference was that L’Express, from its centre left perspective, tended to lump the Poujadists and the CP together as enemies of the republic. During the election campaign it was even suggested that the Poujadists and the CP were still in some sort of alliance; it was alleged that the Poujadists did not attack CP election meetings. As L’Humanité pointed out with some justice, this was no mystery. The other parties could only mobilise small meetings; a CP meeting with hundreds of workers was a less appetising target for the Poujadist thugs.
But L’Express did also carry a more thoughtful piece, by the novelist François Mauriac, in which he argued that the Poujadists were the product of social change in modern France. “In such popular movements the visible pretexts always conceal deeper reasons. Here I am thinking of the contrast between these depopulated provinces and the enormous political Paris which doesn’t care about them, which only speaks in the past tense of their small businesses and of rural craftsmen. In Paris, it’s never a question of anything except their death.”
Was Poujade a fascist? Certainly there were fascistic elements in the movement – thuggishness, anti-Semitism, anti-parliamentarism, nationalism, etc. Some individuals in the movement were undoubtedly nostalgic for Vichy, others, like Jean-Marie Le Pen, looked forward to the real French fascism which would emerge in the 1980s. But Le Pen’s alliance with Poujade was short-lived and uneasy. Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys have shown that there is little continuity between either Poujade’s base of support or his politics and those of Le Pen thirty years later.
The dangers of using the term “fascist” indiscriminately were seen in Germany in the early thirties; its use to describe Poujade, while having far less dangerous consequences, was also inaccurate. In fact the Poujadists themselves sometimes used the word fascist as a term of abuse, as is shown in a scene from the French parliament in February 1956, which helps to explain why parliamentary democracy had fallen into such disrepute:
Le Pen is speaking… “The people opposite us are fascists”. The far right deputies then stand up and sing the Marseillaise.
The Communists: “Fascists! Fascists! Hitlerites!”
The Poujadists: “Get back to Moscow! Fellaghas!”
Fernand Grenier (CP): “These are agents of Doriot sitting on the extreme right, people in the service of the Gestapo.”
Le Pen: “My father was killed by the Germans, imbecile!”
Other sections of the left had different approaches. A much more sober and intelligent attitude was shown by the weekly France-Observateur, edited by Claude Bourdet, France‑Observateur did make comparisons with fascism – for example comparing Poujadist propaganda with the right wing Croix de Feu of the 1930s. But it also published some more sober and reflective articles.
Thus Gilles Martinet wrote a report from a village in Britany during the election campaign which showed a much more perceptive analysis than the abuse thrown by L’Humanité and L’Express.
So here we are at the heart of the problem. These men are not fascists, but the so‑called “apolitical” demagogy of the Poujade movement has made them terribly susceptible to fascism. In the course of the electoral campaign they can see that when they speak about taxes they scarcely interest anyone except tradespeople, but when they use antiparliamentary slogans they reach other social layers (small peasants, office workers etc.).
Martinet noticed the negative aspects of Poujadism and the parallels with the pre-war extreme right:
It is however impossible not to see here that a good number of these artisans and small tradespeople whom Poujadism has thrown into political action are beginning to ask themselves certain questions and are taking an interest in problems which they had neglected until then.
Poujade, at the moment, is playing the sorcerer’s apprentice. The left parties – and not only the Communists – therefore have an interest in not avoiding contact with his troops, and, on the contrary, in initiating discussions which will only rarely give immediate results, but which will not be without importance for the future.
Another contributor to France-Observateur, Jacques Armel, made an important point when he wrote just after the elections: “The contempt displayed by intellectuals for the ‘mediocrities’ of the UDCA is now out of date. For it is certainly possible to find examples of intellectual snobbery on the part of the left, comparable to the way the public schoolboys of Private Eye mocked “Grocer Heath”, or Harvard-educated Democrats sneered at Sarah Palin’s ignorance.
It is perhaps unfair to blame Le Canard Enchaîné for mocking Poujade, since this satirical journal mocked everyone of every political tendency. But the jokes directed at Poujade do reveal a certain intellectual snobbery. There was great glee at the Poujadists’ inability to write grammatical French, as in a statement which read: “AGAINST CORRUPTION AND COWARDICE, AGAINST CONFUSION AND TREACHERY, WITH POUJADE WHO HAS SET US AN EXAMPLE”
Likewise the paper published a mock Poujade programme full of puns relating to shops, so that Poujade, instead of referring to his movement as jusqu’auboutistes (diehards), called them “jusqu’aux boutiques” (up to the shops). Behind the wordplay it is hard not to discern a certain feeling of superiority to village shopkeepers.
Others on the left chose to ignore Poujade completely, considering with some reason that other issues, above all the crisis in Algeria, were far more important. Thus the mid-fifties saw the emergence of what became known as the “Nouvelle gauche” Though it made little electoral impact it was to have considerable importance in the developing opposition to the Algerian war. When Le Monde asked Louis Vallon of the Nouvelle gauche to contribute his point of view on the election, he made no reference to Poujade.
Poujade and his friends had a low view of intellectuals. They were contemptuous of the graduates of the École Polytechnique, whom they blamed for France’s unjust taxation system. Le Pen declared at one election meeting that “France is ruled by pederasts: Sartre, Camus, Mauriac…”
In general the intellectuals did not respond in kind. As far as I can trace, Sartre never mentioned Poujade; there is no index reference to Poujade in the fullest bibliographical study of Sartre’s writings. Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, which in general gives a fascinating chronicle of French political and intellectual life, makes only one passing reference to Poujade; she notes that by the end of June 1956 “all resistance to the war had ceased … if Poujade had lost all importance, it was because everybody in France had become a Poujadist.” This was a little unfair, since the Poujadists had voted against special powers in Algeria, while the Communist Party had supported them.
Sartre’s journal, Les Temps modernes, also had little to say about Poujade, being much more focussed on the developing situation in Algeria. Between August 1955 and January 1957, only one article made more than passing reference to Poujade, a short analysis of the election results by Jean Pouillon. He devoted just one paragraph to Poujade, pointing out that the Republican Front might well unite with the mainstream right to try to counter the Poujadist threat, which would in turn lead possibly to an alliance between the mainstream right and the Poujadists.
L’Express is shouting the loudest about Poujade, but to counter him it is advocating a policy of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. In reality if Poujade is a fascist, there is only one was to stop him doing any harm, and to force him into a struggle which would be premature for him, and that’s the Popular Front. It is possible that the Communist Party will fail to recognise the danger and is running the risk of committing afresh the errors of the pre-Hitler period, but in this case what are those who want to avoid this waiting for to take the initiative of an alliance of the whole left on the basis of a struggle against the Poujade movement.
This fitted the Temps modernes stance of critical support for the Communist Party and the Popular Front, but was scarcely serious since the journal never came back to the point.
During the election period, albert Camus contributed regularly to L’Express, in support of a new Mendès–France government, which he hoped might offer some solution to the Algerian question. (Mendès-France was still committed to keeping Algeria French.)
Camus showed no sympathy to the Poujadists; he considered that their anti-Semitism was enough to “discredit a movement which should be fought as it deserves”. While accepting that the Poujadists had real grievances about the tax system, he insisted that “there can be no question of showing, even for a second, any indulgence for propaganda techniques borrowed from fascism.” He was generally pessimistic about the political scene, noting that the mainstream right might do deals with Poujade while the Communists concentrated their fire on other left parties. “Thus over the sickbed, political and moral nihilism responds to economic nihilism.” But for Camus the Communists were at least as bad as the Poujadists, and he wound up by saying that as long as they did not abandon “considering totalitarianism as a possible means of government, no socialist and no free man could accept any compromise with them.”
The one intellectual who attempted a serious analysis of Poujadism was Roland Barthes, who wrote two articles in Les Lettres Nouvelles, later collected in the volume Mythologies. Barthes noted Poujade’s hostility to intellectuals “who are discredited by their very position outside the computable reality”, and his invocation of “common sense”, whose role is to “posit equivalences between what can be seen and what is, and to ensure a world without transfer, without transition and without progression”. Examining Poujade’s hatred of intellectuals, he notes that for Poujade what intellectuals do cannot be defined as work, and therefore “the intellectual is by definition an idler”. And he shows that Poujade’s arguments can be reduced to tautologies: “Thus all anti-intellectualism ends up in the death of language, that is, in the destruction of sociability.”
Several of Barthes’s points were apt and well made, but there does seem to be a possibility that Barthes’ response to the blunt, simplified language of Poujade led on to the encouragement of the contorted and often incomprehensible language used by the later Barthes and his post-modernist followers.
What almost all commentators had failed to reckon on was the extreme fragility of the Poujade movement. If it rose like a rocket, it fell like a stick. It parliamentary group was soon depleted, several members being disqualified for breach of the incomprehensible electoral regulations. Le Pen, the group’s most effective orator, was increasingly in conflict with Poujade, and by October he had taken leave from the National Assembly in order to join a parachute regiment in Algeria.
The débâcle came with Suez in October 1956. The amazing course of events was described by Le Monde’s correspondent:
In the Poujadist group things seemed simple: spontaneously several of its members had applauded M Guy Mollet …… It seemed obvious that for once they were going to approve the cabinet’s action, which was at last of a decisive nature.
But suddenly M Poujade intervened by telephone in the debate, communicating his “orders” to the group. He had, he said “thought a great deal”, and his meditation had led him to refuse to “fight for the queen of England”. [Poujade was adapting a French saying, work for the king of Prussia, which means working unpaid.]
There was consternation. The average Poujadist didn’t understand what was going on and was unhappy to “obey”. Only the habit of discipline meant that a small majority – twenty-eight out of forty-two, once more agreed to accept the decision.
Effectively it was the end of the road. Nobody was hanged, but one deputy was expelled and three agreed to resign from the National Assembly. Poujade personally, abandoning his earlier pledge not to stand for parliament, stood in a by-election in January 1957, but got a poor result.
In 1958 the corrupt and inefficient Fourth Republic finally collapsed under the strains of the Algerian war, and Charles de Gaulle emerged from retirement to establish the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle’s support owed something to the distrust of the traditional political parties which had given Poujadism its moment of glory. But he was also, unlike Poujade, a resolute moderniser – it was de Gaulle’s rapid expansion of higher education that led to the events of 1968. The Poujadists campaigned in favour of de Gaulle in the referendum establishing the Fifth Republic, but got only around 400,000 votes in the subsequent parliamentary elections. Effectively Poujadism disappeared; the most noxious bit of its legacy, Jean-Marie Le Pen, remained as a deputy with another party.
One of the most interesting accounts of Poujadism is given by Kristin Ross in her book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies. For her Poujadism was essentially a reaction against modernisation, notably the tendency to mass production and distribution favoured by Poujade’s arch-enemy Mendès‑France:
French society for the Poujadistes was equally menaced by American industrialization and Soviet collectivization, both of which would standardize away the unique quality of French life: “Tomorrow … we will all have the same shirt, the same suit, the same pair of shoes. We will buy all these things from the same automatic distributer … They want to turn us into a bunch of robots.” Poujade’s was but an extreme expression of a popular fear common to those who sought shelter behind the watchword of “quality” – a characteristic held to define both French products and the French way of life (the latter embodied by those three stalwart individuals: the peasant, the artist, and the individual entrepreneur).
Ross also pointed to the paradox that, while opposing modernisation, Poujade’s whole campaign was dependent on the technological development which was central to French modernisation in the 1950s – the motor-car, without which his punishing schedule of meetings simply could not have happened. In fact Poujade had a loudspeaker van (a novelty at the time) with its own electrical generator.
Ross also pointed out the central role of the traditional family in Poujade’s view of the world:
The Poujadist couple …. installed behind their shop counter, constitute a strict domestic and professional association. The daily life of the family and the business are united within the boutique: during Poujadist rallies the wife minds the store. A menace to the couple would affect the commercial equilibrium and prosperity as well.
It’s worth noting the direct continuity with Jacobinism; the Jacobins closed down the women’s clubs because the small artisans who constituted Jacobinism’s support needed their wives at home.
Poujadism also reflected a very deep distrust of parliamentary institutions. Opinion polling was still relatively undeveloped, but in the period before the elections IFOP conducted a number of polls which illuminate the state of consciousness among French voters.
In the autumn of 1955 those sampled were asked if, in the forthcoming elections, voters would influence the politics of the country. Only 14% thought they would have a large influence; 33% thought they would have no influence and another 27% didn’t know. Asked before the elections which political group was most likely to achieve the things they wanted, only 1% named the Poujade grouping – but 38% didn’t know. We may imagine a good many of these voted for Poujade.
And when asked, a week before the election, who they hoped to see as Prime Minister, 27% named Mendès-France. No-one else achieved double figures and just 2% named Poujade – with 30% don’t knows. Only 2% named Guy Mollet, leader of the Socialist Party, but it was he, and not Mendès-France, who eventually became prime minister as a result of parliamentary manoeuvring. As political theorist Maurice Duverger wrote:
Our democracy is dying because the people has been exiled from it: once its representatives have been elected, these engage in esoteric games from which the citizens are excluded. Poujadism would not have achieved its present size if it had not in some way expressed this frustration of citizens deprived of any real influence on their choice of leaders. Who would dare claim that the voters of 2 January wanted to see M Mollet at the head of the government?
Writing a few years later, the sociologist Pierre Fougyrollas examined Poujade’s support in terms of his “apoliticism”:
Finally if antiparliamentarism is accompanied with tendencies favourable to a dictatorial regime, for example among the ultranationalists of the far right, and, to a lesser extent, among the sympathisers of the Poujade movement, it is not the case with the antiparliamentary consensus of which we have noted the signs. The latter, no more today than yesterday, does not seem to us in France to be an aspect of a fascist-type mentality.
Fougeyrollas explained this in terms of “relative apoliticism”:
However, this relative apoliticism, that is, relative to the parties and to parliament, is not a recent phenomenon. In the course of modern history, it has taken on acute forms in function of historical circumstances which revealed the internal weakness of various constitutional systems which the country has experienced. It’s not possible to speak of a depoliticisation which would mean that the relative apoliticism derives from a growing absolute apoliticism or that it has given rise to a dangerous increase of this absolute apoliticism.
Fougeyrollas was clearly quite right to see that there was no immediate fascist threat, but perhaps wrong not to see a long-term trend to depoliticisation. Parliamentary democracy has survived, in France as elsewhere, but with ever greater levels of cynicism and non-participation.
Yet as Poujade showed, the politics of anti-politics faces enormous contradictions. As a contemporary commentator noted, “The possibility for the Poujade movement to return to purely economic activity is already ruled out. The destiny of Poujadism is political, and it is in this framework that we must estimate the forms which it may take.” Anti-political attitudes are all around us, but whether they can take on a political form is highly questionable. Poujadism was a symptom, not the problem itself, and certainly not the solution.
 D Borne, Petits Bourgeois en révolte, Paris, 1977, p. 47.
 L’Express, 16 December 1955.
 For a full account, see PM Williams, Crisis and Compromise, London, 1964, pp. 504-8.
 Défense de l’Occident, No. 33, May 1956, p. 24.
 Le Monde, 18-19 December 1955.
 Le Monde, 7 December 1955
 Le Monde, 18-19 December 1955.
 Le Monde, 7 December 1955.
 Le Monde, 21 December 1955.
 Le Monde, 18-19 December 1955.
 Le Monde, 23 December 1955.
 Le Canard Enchaîné, 4 January 1955.
 Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies, Cambridge mass., 1995, p. 128-33.
 Le Monde, 4 January 1956.
 New Statesman, 7 January, 14 January 1956.
 Le Monde, 15 December 1955.
 Défense de l’Occident, No 33, pp. 62-63.
 Le monde, 8 December, 16 December.
 G Bresson & C Lionet, le Pen, Paris, 1994, p. 124.
 Bresson & Lionet, p. 126.
 Bresson and Lionet p. 126
 Le Monde, 24 December 1955.
 Bresson & Lionet, p. 125
 Ross, p 222.
 P Poujade, J’ai Choisi le Combat, Saint-Céré, 1955, p. 114.
 Poujade, pp 229.
 Bresson & Lionet, p. 135.
 L’Express, 22 December 1955.
 Défense de l’Occident, No 33, p. 3.
 L’Humanité, 6 July 1954.
 L’Humanité, 1 October 1955.
 Bresson & Lionet, p. 143
 L’Humanité, 7 January 1956.
 J Fauvet, La IVe République, Paris, 1959, p. 304.
 Cited, Le Monde, 4 January 1956.
 Le Monde, 4 January 1956.
 Le Monde, 13 December 1956
 R Mauge, La Vérité sur Jean-Marie le Pen, Paris, 1988, p. 104.
 Le Monde, 4 January 1956.
 L’Express, 7-8 January 1956
 L’Express, 9 January 1956.
 L’Humanité, 17 December
 L’Express, 5 January 1956.
 P Fysh & J Wolfreys, The Politics of Racism in France, Basingstoke, 1998, pp. 64, 75.
 Bresson & Lionet, p. 135
 France-Observateur, 5 January 1956.
 France-Observateur, 29 December 1955
 France-Observateur, 12 January 1956.
 Le Canard Enchaîné, 4 January 1956
 Le Canard Enchaîné, 11 January 1956.
 Le Monde, 25-26 December 1955
 Bresson & Lionet, pp. 125-26.
 M Contat & M Rybalka, Les Écrits de Sartre, Paris, 1970.
 S de Beauvoir, La Force des choses, Paris, 2965, p. 362.
 Les Temps modernes, No 121 (January 1956), p. 1127.
 L’Express, 6 January, 1956.
 R Barthes, Mythologies, Paris, 1957, pp. 97-98.
 Barthes, pp. 207, 211.
 Le Monde, 1 November 1956
 Borne, p. 156.
 Borne, p. 172.
 Ross, p. 128
 Ross, p. 23
 Bresson & Lionet, p. 119.
 Ross, p. 139
 See P Fougeyrollas, La conscience politique dans la France contemporaine, Paris, 1963, pp. 179, 180, 205.
 Le Monde, 13 April 1956.
 Fougeyrollas, p. 186
 Fougeyrollas, p. 252.
 Défense de l’Occident, No 33, p. 96.