These are dispiriting times for France. The 6pm curfew and the closure of bistros and theatres have taken all the fun out of life. What is there to do in the evening but watch television? Last night viewers were subjected to a live political debate, what was regarded as the opening salvo to the 2022 presidential campaign. The long-suffering French have 15 more months of this.
The debate pitted Gérald Darmanin, the Interior Minister, against Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National (RN). In the estimation of this morning’s Le Monde it was a ‘cordial’ encounter dominated by Islamism.
Much was made recently of an opinion poll in which Marine Le Pen had nosed ahead of Emmanuel Macron in voting intentions, but it speaks volumes about her uninspiring leadership that she has failed to capitalise more on the government’s muddled handling of the pandemic.
How different her standing might be had she adopted a different response this time last year. Instead she fell into line with the government’s policy of confinements, curfews and closures, and has rarely had anything critical to say about Macron’s administration. This failure (applicable to all the mainstream parties) to speak up for the ‘little people’ who are suffering in the worst recession since the second world war has created a political vacuum. Into this has stepped Florian Philippot, France’s answer to Nigel Farage.
If that name rings a bell it’s because he was Le Pen’s number two during the 2017 presidential campaign. Following her defeat, Philippot quit the National Front, as it then was, and formed The Patriots. Over the next three years he faded slowly from the scene, but Covid has breathed fresh life into his political aspirations and he has become a frequent face on national TV in recent weeks.
Unlike Le Pen, Philippot has from the outset railed with bitter eloquence against what he describes as ‘Coronafolie’, the disproportionate over-reaction of the government and its insidious imposition of laws that have curtailed the liberty of the people. He has also expressed his concern about the vaccination programme, believing it will lead to the creation of a ‘passport’ that will be used to further restrict people’s movement within France and the EU. To his enemies, this is proof that Philippot is an antivaxxer. But his position on all matters Covid has resonated with a great many French people who despair at their joyless existence and fear for their future prosperity.
Philippot has become their voice, and he also speaks for the growing number of people who wish to follow Britain out of the EU. Philippot was a proponent of ‘Frexit’ four years ago but few people took him seriously. They do now, gobsmacked at the ineptitude of the EU in managing the vaccine rollout. ‘Covid has advanced the cause of Frexit as never before,’ he tweeted last Saturday, the day he spoke at a rally in Paris to demand the reopening of society.
It is not just Macron and the EU in Philippot’s sights; he never misses an opportunity to condemn the political class for acquiescing to what he calls the ‘dictature sanitaire’. Marine Le Pen feels his wrath more than most. There is clearly unfinished business between the pair, and while her aides have rubbished Philippot to the press – reminding them that he is an Énarque, a product of L’École Nationale d’Administration, the elite finishing school for French technocrats – there will be a twinge of apprehension at his rejuvenation.
There is a gathering momentum behind Philippot, which for the moment is small, but nonetheless significant. ‘It’s a little like a rebirth for The Patriots,’ he said last month, boasting that membership of the party has risen from 2,000 to more than 14,000 on the back of Covid.
His recent book, The Oligarchy Unmasked, is selling well and in December he discussed it on camera with Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s niece and a National Front MP for five years. Maréchal and Philippot fell out during the 2017 presidential election over policy. Maréchal was focused on the ideological struggle between the traditional left vs right but Philippot has long seen the world as a battle between globalists and nationalists, Anywheres versus Somewheres. His invitation to speak at Maréchal’s Lyon university suggests she has come round to his way of thinking.
At the event, Philippot insisted that appearing on the same platform as Maréchal was simply an opportunity to discuss his book. ‘It was neither a meeting nor an electoral alliance,’ he said.
Both have time on their side. He is 39 and she is 31, the generation that will be feeling the economic ramifications of ‘Coronafolie’ for years to come. Whether their amity is genuine remains to be seen. It may be a marriage of convenience but they are said to be united in their scorn for Marine Le Pen’s reluctance to take Macron to task for his handling of the pandemic.
For their part the RN, which mistakenly believe Islam and immigration are the only battlegrounds on which the 2022 election will be won, are confident that Philippot will fade back into obscurity post-Covid. ‘He will rejoin the large cohort of people who believed that could dispense with the Le Pen name,’ said Philippe Olivier, one of the party’s MEPs.
That is a statement predicated on life returning to normal. But it won’t. The people who will suffer most financially from Covid are those who in 2018 donned yellow vests. They seek a political leader. Philippot’s message that he is their man is beginning to get through.
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