French shopkeepers on the march

Poujade emerges after 30 years with the message that only a 'miracle' will stop a revolt among small traders

ALREADY the spirits of history are haunting the presidency of Jacques Chirac: the first wave of terrorism since his prime ministership 10 years ago; the spectre of Vichy - the alleged killer of its police chief, Rene Bousquet, goes on trial tomorrow; the constant presence of De Gaulle, the 25th anniversary of whose death is commemorated on Thursday, and in the past week, a spirit from the streets...

From Bordeaux and Montpellier all France heard the angry shouts and shattering glass that denoted only one thing: the return of the Poujadistes - otherwise known as the Confederation for the Defence of Small-shopkeepers and Artisans (CDCA) - the militant defenders of small business, slashing and burning their way through the urban landscape in support of what they call the traditional French way of life.

In Bordeaux, which was specially chosen for the 'treatment' as the newly acquired fiefdom of the French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, there were more than 80 arrests; 28 people were injured, most of them police, two buildings were gutted by fire, and millions of francs worth of damage was caused, including to a showy glass office block, attacked as the embodiment of the big corporations. The city's police professed themselves shocked by the stick-waving demonstrators, the city's politicians chided the police with being slow to react, and Mr Juppe flew down to Bordeaux to chair an emergency meeting of the city council.

Then, in the midst of all the recriminations, came a disembodied warning from the man himself. Pierre Poujade, founder of the CDCA's predecessor (the Union for the Defence of Small-shopkeepers and Artisans), former Gaullist minister, former MP and former mayor of Dijon, made a rare public statement.

"All the ingredients of an explosion have come together," he said in a signed communique, "and only a miracle will prevent it... Chirac will have to choose between the people and the system that has grown rotten... Things are worse than they were in 1953: fiscal pressure and the steamroller of uncontrolled capitalism are wreaking devastation... as in the darkest days of the Fourth Republic, we can see the harbingers of the end of the regime... the hour of social fracturing, so dear to Chirac when he was presidential candidate, seems to have passed; the hour of social rupture has arrived."

Now 74, Poujade lives in retirement on his farm in Aveyron. But the direct and colourful language of his communique made it unmistakably his. A small- town stationer from the south-western region of the Lot, he started the UDCA in response to what he saw as crippling taxes and obligations on small businesses, "to defend the small against the big". In two years, thanks to a combination of his populist oratory and the depth of shopkeepers' grievances, it had become a national movement of 500,000 members.

In the 1956 parliamentary elections, with its right-wing, nationalist and anti-corporatist stance, the UDCA gained 52 seats. One went to Jean- Marie Le Pen, now leader of the extreme right National Front.

Poujade himself never veered to the National Front and counts it as shaming that his movement was Le Pen's springboard into politics. He saw himself as a populist and a Gaullist, and deviated only once, to vote for Francois Mitterrand in 1981 - not, he says, to support Mitterrand, but to vote against Valery Giscard d'Estaing. He was France's first environment minister and a long-serving deputy. For him, it has been said, as of many French politicians of his generation, Pompidou died too early.

Despite a long political career, it is the populism of the Fifties for which Poujade is best known: in particular, the campaigns, at times violent, that led to thousands of small-businessmen withholding what they felt were punitive taxes and weakening the government to the point where it had to call elections. The 52 UDCA MPs returned in 1956 were elected on a platform of 'smashing' the regime. Two years later, the fourth republic had collapsed, and De Gaulle was called back to save the nation.

Despite the destructiveness of last week's protests and Poujade's claims that they herald an imminent social explosion - even the end of the regime - only two cities were affected and only 3,000 people are said to have taken part. The revival of the Poujadistes' methods and demands strikes a worrying chord for the government. Small business wields considerable power and small shopkeepers, even slashing and burning, command great public sympathy as a vital part of the French way of life.

The CDCA's latest protest had two main aims. One was its perennial demand for lower state levies and less regulation, augmented by the special fear that now, as in the Fifties, a government short of cash will try to take a disproportionate amount of it from them. Their enemies in this are state employees, trade unions and big government. Their other target, while more "modern", also has echoes of the Fifties. Then, they opposed sweeping changes in wholesale distribution systems; now, they are fighting a rearguard action against hotel chains, hypermarkets and out-of-town shopping malls. While claiming "unfair competition", they also complain of rampant corruption in the allocation of hypermarket sites - charges lent substance by several current investigations.

Sensing the growing protests, Mr Juppe recently placed a moratorium on all new hypermarket developments. He also foreshadowed new measures to regulate and "help" small business - which he will announce in Bordeaux at the end of this month. But the CDCA and its members suspect anything in the way of state involvement; last week's protests were their first warning shots.

Their sharp intervention shows that a hardy strand of Poujadiste activism still exists in France, uniting the "small' against the "big" and surfacing when "big government" or "big corporations" start to weigh too heavy. An estimated 80 per cent of the 9 million French people engaged in small business voted for Mr Chirac in May in the hope that in protecting France, he would also protect them. Like so many others, they are bitterly disappointed; but they also feel threatened. And if they feel threatened, their argument goes, then France is threatened too.

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