Magazine article The Spectator

The Man of the Moment

Magazine article The Spectator

The Man of the Moment

Article excerpt

Tarbes, South West France

PIERRE Poujade, the man whose name is a synonym for right-wing popular disruption and revolt in France, is mildly surprised to learn that it is suddenly on everyone's lips in Britain. But whatever our chattering classes may be saying about him, he is happy.

`Much better that people use my name - even if they criticise and call me fascist, facho, eh?' He laughs, making a face like a monster, waving his arms and googling his small, shrewd eyes. Although he'll be 80 on 1 December, he has not lost the taste for combat and political mischief, and takes a kind of amused satisfaction in seeing his methods erupting all over Europe in the face of spiralling petrol prices.

Poujadism is a word now used in its own right, detached from the half-forgotten uprising of shopkeepers and artisans he led in the 1950s; it has joined the many French catchwords culled from centuries of rebellions by paysans, parliamentarians and princes alike, agin the government, and especially agin the fisc: Jacquerie, Fronde, Croquants, sans-culottes.

Poujade the man is also still very much alive. I found him this week, high in the Pyrenees, where the winter cold is already in the air and the towering peaks are shrouded in mist presaging snow. Normally he lives on a hilltop in the Aveyron, on the southern edge of the Massif Central, where it is marginally warmer and, he claims, the views are even better. But he was visiting his son (a farmer who reputedly makes the best foie gras in the region) and inspecting his second great-grandchild.

A robust man, with the powerful physique of a retired athlete, he looks 15 years younger than his age and has the voice and charisma of a gifted country priest or an actor. He seems to have too much humour and sense of the absurd to be a politician, which perhaps partly explains why he has remained in the role of eternal subversive one who leads his troops to the gate of the citadel but doesn't storm it.

We sit at the table - keeping his family from their dinner - while he runs through the chronology of his extraordinary life, acting all the parts and adding extravagant gestures, like a one-man cabaret.

Adult life began with the war: Poujade escaped the Nazis via Spain and joined the Free French in London and later in North Africa. He was a trainee pilot in the US air force but was thrown out after being involved in a fight with military police; so he joined the RAF, an impressive experience. `The Americans made a pilot in nine months - sent him up to drop bombs willy-nilly. The French had good pilots, but in the RAF - that was to be a pilot ... not a taxi-driver, eh?'

He abandoned the rigorous training when France was liberated, and with his Algerianborn wife, Yvette, and the first of their five children returned to France. (Yvette has the Legion d'honneur for her war record; she was the first woman to land on liberated French soil - in Corsica where she commanded the ambulance corps.)

In postwar France he could have become a gangster, he says. Instead he joined a Catholic book company and tramped the land selling lives of the saints out of a suitcase. `Believe me, when you have been on the road selling the Life of Saint Elizabeth, you can sell anything!'

He moved to a secular enterprise selling foreign fiction in translation and saved enough to open his own bookshop back home in Saint Cere, in the Lot department of South West France.

There Poujadism was born, on 23 July 1953. The dreaded tax inspectors were due, and those traders to be subjected to a control - a fearsome trawl through every last centime in their accounts - shivered in their back rooms. The discovery of the most piffling abuse or inadvertent error, and the victim would be `strangled, garrotted, ruined'. Poujade clutches his neck and feigns the agony involved.

Poujade was a member of the town council, and his communist adversary came puffing along on his bike. …

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