Pierre Poujade

Political campaigner of the French right

Pierre Poujade, bookseller and political campaigner: born Saint Céré, France 1 December 1920; married 1944 Yvette Seva (three sons, two daughters); died La Bastide-L'Evêque, France 27 August 2003.

Pierre Poujade's success as a demagogic leader of an extreme right-wing movement in mid-1950s France, eruptive but short-lived, has left the word "Poujadist" to politics as a term of dismissal of popular protest movements of the right.

Former Poujadists are still to be found at the forefront of French politics and one of these, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has bettered the lesson of his former patron. Poujade was the first of a type of media-wise personality that has subsequently become more familiar on the extreme right, able to bring together disparate protests and give them a meaning, but essentially marking a refusal and rejection of mainstream politics.

Pierre Poujade was born in 1920 at Saint-Céré in the department of Lot. His father, an architect and Action Française supporter, died when he was still young and Pierre had to make his way early in life (starting as a typographer). He was interested in politics of the right and joined the youth movement of Jacques Doriot's fascistic Parti Populaire Français. However, the defeat and the collaboration of the Pétain/Laval governments turned him against Vichy and he made his way to Algiers via Spain and eventually served for a time in the RAF.

When he returned to France at the Liberation, he started as a travelling salesman and then set up as a shopkeeper (of books and stationery) in Saint-Céré, and in 1953 was elected to the council as a Gaullist. Although the first post-war years were good for the very many French shopkeepers who had good profit margins and had benefited from inflation, the tide soon turned against them as restrictions and inflation ended. It was the announcement of a tax audit in the department that led to the formation of a "defence group", and then to the creation of other similar groups. Initially Poujade was promoted by a Communist councillor and was viewed sympathetically by the Communist Party, although the Communists were bit by bit eliminated.

Poujade's position as a shopkeeper was marginal and he began, using many ideas from the inter-war right, to organise this disorganised and individualist milieu inflamed by the decision to impose a local sales tax and by the Mendès France government's decision to imprison anybody who resisted tax inspection. "Poujadolf" (as l'Express called him), or "Pierrot" to his supporters, was a cynical and vulgar man. He proved an effective orator of uninhibited rhetoric inflaming xenophobia and deriding homosexuals and using anti-Semitism against Pierre Mendès France, but also appealing to a nostalgia for the old France. It had, noted one commentator, "as much intellectual content as a scream".

He was also an artisan of "direct protest" (raiding tax offices, for example) and he presented his campaign as "republican" and moral. It was representative of people displaced by modernisation who André Siegfried called those "who struggle noisily, with the frantic gestures of drowning men".

Poujade started the Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans with a rally at Cahors in November 1953 and its themes of anti tax and defence of the little man against the big commercial forces and against bureaucracy took off nationally during 1954. At the end of that year a weekly newspaper, Fraternité Française, was started. Poujade's UDCA touched on broader issues of national decline, decolonisation by the Mendès France government and the pace of modernisation that was rapidly changing French life in the provinces.

Poujade, it must be said, had no remedies to contemporary problems apart from the dissolution of parties and an arcadian vision of a family-oriented fraternal France of small businesses. He was to capitalise, however, on the rising Algérie française mood in the country as conditions in Algeria deteriorated and this was symbolised by a monster meeting in Paris in January 1955.

The snap general election of January 1956 caught the Poujadist movement of shopkeepers, artisans and small peasant farmers, gathered into the party Union et Fraternité Française, on the upswing, but came too early for it to capitalise on its full potential. Although at odds with the anti-party stance taken by him, Poujade had probably determined to run a campaign in mid-1955 and it proved to be slanderous, violent and utterly negative. Poujade's supporters made meetings of all parties (except the Communists) potentially rowdy.

All the same, running on the empty but captivating slogan of "sortez les sortants" emphasising the anti-parliamentary message, the Poujadists polled 2.6m votes, taking 11.6 per cent of the vote and winning over 50 seats in the Assembly (11 were unseated later on legal grounds). Poujadists did well south of the line from St Malo to Geneva. Votes came from the wine-growing areas in the south and from hard-pressed small business and peasant farmers as well as from those on the right opposed to decolonisation, the European Defence Community and from hard-liners hostile to the Republic. Poujade himself was not elected but he sat in the public gallery directing his party's deputies on how to vote.

Once in parliament the Poujadist movement fell apart. Its organisation was not strong and Poujade's sense of leadership was weak. In parliament they proved incapable of deciding a line, influencing motions or passing laws and their incompetence was manifest. Poujade lost much support when he told his deputies at the time of Suez to "vote against fighting for the Queen of England".

Meanwhile Gaullism took over the mantle of opposition to the Fourth Republic but Poujade was torn between the defence of small business and the wider struggle against decolonisation of Algeria. Poujade was humiliated at a by-election in Paris and one by one his major backers quit. His aggressive anti-Gaullism in the elections of September 1958 lost him his remaining support.

His activity became more vigorously anti-Gaullist as the decolonisation of Algeria proceeded under the General's aegis but he called for Poujadists to abstain and not to vote "no" on the 1962 referendum (on the direct election of the president) that was seen as a plebiscite on de Gaulle's rule. For the 1965 presidential elections he supported the Christian Democrat Jean Lecanuet and in 1966 rallied to the Fifth Republic.

Poujade's political career after that went into eclipse and he devoted himself to the business side of the pressure group's activity though without wholly abandoning politics. He was consulted occasionally on issues affecting small business but he polled a mere 1.6 per cent at the 1979 European parliament elections, and his re-entry into politics was not to be. He supported Mitterrand in the 1981 elections and kept a prudent distance from Le Pen (whom he dismissed with the comment that supporting him was "the worst thing I ever did") when the Front National became a force in the 1980s.

From the 1970s, he made up for his lack of success in politics by investing his energy in building up his businesses.

D.S. Bell

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