The week that ‘Section 30’ was activated by Nicola Sturgeon and ‘Article 50’ triggered by Theresa May’s letter, I was in France and over a café crème each morning, read about it all in Le Monde.
This great European newspaper with its painstaking reportage as well as opinion, sophisticated use of photography, and broad agenda of international news illuminated the situation, and it is always interesting to see oursels as ithers see us.
At their meeting in East Kilbride, May said to Sturgeon about the referendum call: “Ce n’est pas le bon moment.” Some things just sound better in French. In English her: “Now is not the time,” has a rather nanny-ish ring, it’s one of those circular phrases that May likes. I can imagine a character saying this in Alice In Wonderland and the white rabbit replying, irritated, looking at his watch: “The time is always now, don’t you know anything?” But “Ce n’est pas le bon moment,” sounds faintly desperate. It reminds me of the Jacques Brel classic “Ne me quitte pas,” with its lines “Oublier le temps…et le temps perdu” (Forget the time and the time that’s past/wasted). This song, of course, would also do as a soundtrack for Brexit.
Of course, Brexit got plenty of coverage in Le Monde last week, starting with the EU-27 gathering in Rome to celebrate 60 years since the signing of the Rome Treaty that founded the then common market. In the first paragraph of the report, an EU official called Neil Thomson appears draped in an EU flag, with a sign in his hand, advancing gently towards the Bocca del Verita. ‘British – “Scottish”, he corrects quickly. “I have never been a nationalist, but if it allows us to stay in Europe, why not?”’
The front page of the paper on this historic day was devoted to an image of Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin, taking coffee with Putin as the EU leaders stood together in Rome. The pair are seated at a white and gold table, in an opulent room with gilded detail on the walls and a gilt mirror reflecting a gold motif on the white door.
Le Pen leans forward in her chair, knees pressed together, fingers enlaced, her head tipped in a submissive attitude, like the mother of a suspended pupil pleading with a strict headteacher. At the other side of the table sits Vlad himself, side-on to the camera, manspreading, elbows on the arms of the chair, hands dangling between his legs.
The headline reads: “Marine Le Pen, knighted at the Kremlin by Vladimir Putin” and below is a trail for an editorial on page 24: “Putinism, the spectre that haunts Europe”. This discusses the model which Le Pen admires: an authoritarian regime where opponents are assassinated, international law is violated as in the Crimea, support is offered to Bashir Assad’s regime in Syria.
Brexit, the editorial goes on, is one of triple threats the EU is facing, along with the migrant crisis and the Eurozone. It is a difficult moment. But the paper points to the peoples of Austria and the Netherlands who have refused to elect populist leaders of the far right. All is not lost. The future and freedom of France, the paper concludes, lie in Europe.
In the business pages, Brexit also figures, in a report of May’s reassuring words to bankers at a City dinner; and in another about the dream of the anglophone world, in which Brexiteers hope that a Britain freed from the EU can reconnect – and this sounds faintly insulting in French – with its “natural” friends and allies. Another reports that Paris is battling with Frankfurt over the chance to win business from banks moving some of their operations out of London – but nobody is making any plans until the result of the French election is known. “The City is packing its boxes – a few at least.”
If Le Pen were to win, it would be the third result, after Brexit and Trump, to overturn the polls and shock the world. The polls predict she will win a place in the run-off between the two first placed candidates from the initial round on April 23 a fortnight later (May 7), but that she will lose to Emmanuel Macron, the 39 year old social democrat in the second. In an interview, Macron warns against complacency, citing Brexit and Trump’s victories.
France and Europe are holding their breath over the result of les Présidentielles. Personally, I hope that the frankly embarrassing example of Britain’s populist government blundering their way towards le Brexit may put sensible French voters off populist far right candidates. The fact that British politicians even raised the possibility of war with Spain four days after triggering Article 50 ought to be some reminder of where “blood-and-soil” nationalism leads. To war, usually.
Le Monde is not prone to sensationalism. In an article about Gibraltar, it observes merely that here, and in the situation with Scotland, Brexit throws a spotlight on the re-emergence of bilateral conflicts which were previously contained within the structures of the European Union.