The university semester starts today. For the first time, I have to teach a course in politics. Or rather we do. It’s a bilingual course in English and French. I speak in English, my colleague in French.
Today he does the talking because everyone wants to know about Marine Le Pen. They could also ask me of course, because I have met more members of the French far right than most.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a skinhead, even though I look like one. My solar panel hairstyle is a product of too much time in the open air, too many hats and my own thick head getting fatter as I grow older. It has nothing to do with political persuasion. But I lived in France for two years and my fat head is home to a good memory.
If I were an ultra-nationalist then France would not be my country of choice. It is my love-hate nation. When I lived in Paris I hated it. I hated the crowds, the dirt, the aggression –although so do most people.
What I really hated was the pissing. A common stereotype of the French male is that the world is his urinal. This stereotype is absolutely true –but it is true of Parisians only.
Not a bush, not a doorway, not a lamppost is safe. I once gave directions around my own banlieue to a man who turned his back on me as I spoke. “Carry on” he said “I’m listening”. By the time I got to: “and it’s on the left-hand side after the lights” we were both up to our ankles in water. The Parisian public lavatory cleaners have been on strike since 1974 and not a soul has even noticed.
Oh, and I hated the beer prices. Fifty francs for a pint of beer! Five pounds! You could still get a round in for that in England –-this was in 1999. But what I hated most of all was that I wasn’t in England, or Scotland, or somewhere else other than here.
The fact that some of the world’s finest cultural attractions were just a local bus ride away didn’t seem to register with me and nor did the architecture, the diversity. I was just too young for it. All I could think about was the beer prices. I was an immigrant who wasn’t prepared to integrate.
My interpretation of “culture” was to get a season ticket for Paris St. Germain, the city’s less-than-loved football team. PSG were unloved in the city not because of the coach or the players. PSG’s biggest liability was its supporters.
I got myself a ticket in the Kop of Boulogne, the stand behind the goal at the club’s Parc des Princes stadium. It was cheap: 630 francs for a year. Twelve beers only. It was so cheap that most of the stadium was already sold out. The Kop was the only place that still had free seats.
At this point you’re probably asking: Why were there free seats in this section of the ground? You might also be asking: How come he’s met so many far-right extremists? Well put two and two together and you’ll get the right answer. For a young homesick Scottish liberal with an arts degree and a Britpop hairdo it was quite an eye opener. Not that anybody warned me: The first I knew of it was the first match.
The first home game was against Marseille. Le classique. The capital against the provinces (France is not one country but two), the far right against the Beurs and Arabes of the Deep South.
The fun starts early. French car number plates have two digits denoting where the car comes from. In the hours before the game any car bearing a 13 for Marseille gets its windows smashed. On the way into the stadium I get to try tear gas for the first time. In front of us, Parisians are trying to beat their way through to the visitors. My companions are English. We speak French to each other from this point onwards.
The game goes badly. The players run onto the pitch and rockets are fired at the Marseille players. Time for more tear gas and a visit from the CRS, France’s infamous riot police. They seem to know their target audience well.
Fabrizzio Ravanelli puts Marseille 1-0 up. The visiting fans are ecstatic. There is motion elsewhere too. Around the stadium, flags are being pulled out of jackets and waved at the Kop of Boulogne. Algerian flags mostly, Tunisian ones, Moroccan ones, anything else with a crescent which can be used as a red rag.
The rockets fire again, direct from the Kop towards the flag bearers. The tear gas and the Robocops restore order and the whole block gives a rendition of the Boulogne anthem:
Marseillais va niquer ta mère… Sur la canecanebière………..
Marseillais fuck your mother on the Canebière. The Canebière is Marseille’s most famous boulevard. You don’t want to park a car with a 75 number plate there during the return fixture.
Paris lose the game 2-0. Later that evening as we are sat in an Irish pub (cheap beer, poor integration) we agree that this is a game we will never forget. The rest of the season goes the same way. I wasn’t sorry when the season ended and I left Paris.
I’ve only ever been back to the capital once. I changed trains from Cologne to Orléans. A man pulled the emergency chord in the Métro so that he could piss out of the door. Never again.
I can recommend Orléans though. Or Blois, or Strasbourg. Or Nantes, Lille, Bayonne: pretty much anywhere in France actually. I love going back there. The people are nice too, once you get round to their way of thinking. They are polite, hospitable, respectful and ever mindful of the need to honour principles.
Last September I even went to Marseille for the first time. I saw the famous Canebière. It’s a long line of everything-a-euro shops, restaurants which don’t serve alcohol and the occasional lavender shop for the tourists. Soldiers and police are everywhere, partly a hangover of unwelcome immigrants from England and Russia who had visited in the summer, nominally to watch football but in reality to hit each other. France is suffering, this much is clear.
It’s a fascinating town. Lost in its backstreets you could be in Abidjan or Algiers, out by its harbour looking at the yachts you’re reminded that the next stop is the Côte d’Azur. The churches and theatres are beautiful. It typifies the best of French architecture (massive public building programmes) and the worst (failure to maintain, well, any building at all really).
It’s also not the sort of place where you want to hang around after dark. The baseball caps line up at the supermarkets to fill up on cheap booze. France has a real problem with youth alcoholism. So does Britain of course, but in France the problem is a new one. Do you know what the French is for “binge drinking”? It’s le binge drinking. That tells you all you need to know.
I wait in line, buy a half bottle of wine with a plastic glass on it and retire to my hotel. It is down an alleyway. The homeless have been there so long they have their own mattresses.
I lie on the bed and watch TV. A lot has changed in the last seventeen years but French television hasn’t. Actually that’s not quite true. Back in 1999, only North Korea had poorer state-run TV than France. Now, thanks to Kim Jong-un, the Koreans have overtaken.
It is dreadful. On the one channel you have a team of Chtis and Marseillais taking on a team of Parisians in a chili pepper eating contest. The humour comes from the thick regional accents of the provincial participants. Like I say, France is not one country but two.
On the other channels, various intellectuals discuss surveys on subjects such as “(Insert percentage) of French people believe that Islam…(insert horror story)”. Marine Le Pen is among them, although she plays down her intellectualism.
Since I lived in France, one of the biggest changes has been in the Le Pen family. Jean-Marie no longer leads the Front National as he did in 1999; power has passed to his daughter.
The two don’t like each other very much and I don’t blame them. The daughter has distanced herself from the father, both personally and politically. The antisemitism and xenophobia have been replaced by appeals to workers’ rights and protectionism. France for the French not France against the rest.
The thug mentality has gone. I doubt very much that Marine has ever watched a PSG game from the Kop of Boulogne —or that she would be happy to have such people as her supporters. They are still there of course and I bet they voted for her on Sunday. But Ms. Le Pen is playing by the rules.
As the results come in, opinions are mixed. She has made second place behind Emmanuel Macron. They will now face off in the second round and she will almost certainly lose.
She is still smiling, however. She will also almost certainly gain a higher percentage of the vote than her father did at this stage in 2002. She will beat Dad’s record and she may be back next time. Or there is Marion, her niece, the rising star of the party. Marion and Jean-Marie love each other by the way.
France and Europe can breathe a little easier –for now. There will be no Frexit referendum, not for five years at least. My expensive beer in Marseille will be priced in euros and not francs. But they will try again and may make progress.
Immigration is no longer a taboo subject discussed in public only on the football terraces. It is a legitimate political issue —and so it should be. If mainstream politicians do not address it then more extreme ones will. The danger is that although the Front National has changed, many of its followers have not. This could be the thin end of the wedge.
I still have my season ticket for the Kop of Boulogne, although I never renewed it. I found it the other day, a small plastic card in a bag of artefacts I thought I’d thrown out. It was wine-glued to a photo of me in 1996 at Sheffield University.
The photo reminds me of what I looked like as a 19-year old, a chin under a mop of hair. Like I say, I’m not a skinhead by choice.