As the gilet jaune revolt moves forward and another destructive showdown looks imminent tomorrow in Paris, the government – and the president – have opted for the lesser of two contradictions. The greater: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you set aside progressive fiscal policy and tax rich and poor at the same rate, putting social justice – a grand French aspiration – in parenthesis. That didn't work. The lesser: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you get alongside low earners and help them through a difficult transition, even though the climate jeopardy of clapped-out diesel UVs is absurdly obvious. But that hasn't worked either.
Fighting on the Champs Elysées last weekend between French security forces and the so-called 'gilets jaunes' led to more than 100 arrests. According to the police, roughly eight thousand demonstrators took part. Barricades were built – and set alight – by what looked from a distance to be groups of rampaging lollipop people in dayglo yellow tops. But the gilets jaunes are not championing pedestrian safety: their revolt has been prompted by a sharp rise in the price of diesel and unleaded petrol at the pump, which they blame on President Macron's fossil fuel tax. This is a drivers' movement, at least at first sight, and despite the turmoil on the Champs Elysées, it is deeply provincial. Macron responded on Tuesday not with a U-turn, but with a concession enabling parliament to freeze the carbon tax – which is set to keep rising year on year – when the oil price goes up. A freeze is a very different proposition from a reduction and the gilets jaunes don't like it. They were out in force again on Wednesday and another big demonstration looks likely in Paris tomorrow.
Last week Emmanuel Macron issued a declaration acknowledging the role of the French military in the murder of a pro-independence activist in Algeria sixty years ago. The lead story in France should have been Macron's plan to break the chain of hereditary poverty with an additional €8.5 billion for children destined for a life of hardship bordering on misery. Arguments about the sums (insufficient) and the targeting (contentious) were quickly relegated to the sidebar as editors took the measure of Macron's conscientious, damning remarks on torture and disappearance during the Algerian war, a period that still clouds French sensitivities on inward migration, secular dress codes and acts of violence committed by radical Islamists.
How many asylum seekers have returned to Calais since the Jungle was dismantled in the autumn of 2016? A year after the camp’s residents were dispersed across France, nearly half opted for asylum from the French authorities and got it. But there are still people mustering in Calais – perhaps one thousand – and Grande-Synthe (near Dunkirk), hoping to reach the UK, where they have relatives and networks that can help them resettle, after arduous journeys from points east and south. The Calais Jungle had a poor press in Britain, and the recent arrivals on the Channel coast are faring no better. They also have a local enemy in the mayor, Natacha Bouchart, who rose to prominence during Nicolas Sarkozy’s bling-and-markets presidency. Last month Bouchart announced to the Daily Express: ‘They have smartphones and nice clothes. They’ve been told that they have rights, but no duties. They drink themselves senseless – they down litres of vodka – and get into fights.’ Well prepped, you can’t help thinking, for rapid assimilation in their dream destination, Brexit Britain.
From the little fishing village of Skala Sikamineas in northern Lesbos you have a good view of the Turkish coast less than 15 km away. Even when the wind gets up and riles the water, there are still refugees crossing in inflatable dinghies with outboard motors, mostly at night. There are descendants on this part of the island from an earlier refugee influx at the end of the Greco-Turkish war, when Turkish forces entered the city of Smyrna in 1922 and Greek and Armenian residents crammed the waterfront for days waiting for boats to get them to safety. In a report for the League of Nations on 18 November 1922, Fridtjof Nansen reckoned the number of refugees ‘already within the frontiers of Greece’ at ‘not less than 900,000’. The Northern Aegean islands and the mainland port of Piraeus were common destinations for those who were lucky enough to leave Turkey by sea. This history gives the inhabitants of Lesbos a perspective on the current refugee crisis that is now much harder to imagine in island communities such as the UK. Before the NGOs arrived in force in 2015, when thousands of refugees were arriving daily, rescuing people in danger was a matter for local people, especially fishermen, and the overstretched Hellenic Coast Guard.
‘Whitmanesque’ is how Colin Ward, writing in the LRB, described Heathcote Williams’s book Whale Nation (1988). Williams, who died on Saturday, was a difficult catch. We persisted for a time, trying to get him to write for the paper, then lost heart; gathered up our courage, only to fall back again in despair. There are just two pieces by Williams in the LRB archive. The first is a poem – though there isn’t much dolling up, and nothing conspicuously ‘poetic’ – which plays with the idea of wars as music festivals (‘The music was mainly percussive … There have been several attempts to get the show on the road again’). In the second, a review of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, Williams follows the author and ‘his trusty snorkel’ on ‘a swimmer’s journey through Britain’.
Emmanuel Macron, the eighth president of the Fifth Republic, is decked in glory; around his head a halo you could easily mistake for a crown. Youth, acumen, charisma, and now, above all, power. Having nearly doubled the vote for his rival, Marine Le Pen, in round two of the presidentials, he is likely to see a sweeping endorsement for his party, La République en Marche, when the second round of voting for seats at the National Assembly takes place on Sunday.
Emmanuel Macron’s success in France on Sunday was not the result of a consensual ‘republican front’ behind which voters could rally against Marine Le Pen in round two. In 2002, when her father reached the second round, a wave of anguish was followed by stoical nose-holding, as the many opponents of Jacques Chirac’s presidency trudged to the polls and voted him into office: anything but Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac took 82 per cent of the vote on a turnout of 80 per cent; 5 per cent spoiled their ballots or left them blank. Le Pen Sr knew a republican front when he saw one. He snarled at its huge following and told them to vote with saucepans on their heads: that way they’d look like the fools that they were.
‘It’s going to be a very interesting election. But you know some outside things have happened that maybe will change the course of that race.’ This from Trump, speculating in an interview with the Financial Times about Marine Le Pen’s prospects in the French presidential election (round one on 23 April). As far as we know, Trump has yet to meet her. She got as far as Trump Tower in January, but the president elect was indisposed and Le Pen’s people said at the time that she never intended to meet him. She linked up instead with one of his aides-de-camp. Here she is having coffee with Guido Lombardi, who has a pied-à-terre in Trump Tower and was formerly the US representative of Italy’s Northern League. Both Le Pen and Lombardi like to spare a moment to mull over the scourge of immigration.
After the second round of voting this weekend, Benoît Hamon has won the Socialist Party candidature for the French presidential elections. He already had the edge over his rival, the former prime minister Manuel Valls, in round one of the primaries. With Valls you always knew what you were going to get come the vote in March: total defeat. Hamon is not tipped to make it past round one either, but it would be wrong for the Vallsistes to tell themselves that their man was the realistic option. Valls's association with Hollande's disappointing term – Hollande had a popularity rating of 4 per cent last year – would have been a killer. Besides, in the unlikely event of the French electorate wanting another socialist president, it would vote for the genuine article. Valls is a New Labour lookalike.