Farm Ireland

Saturday 18 November 2017

Opinion: Marine Le Pen the 'farmers friend' will be back to fight another day


French far-right presidential candidate Marine le Pen concedes the election to centrist Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Reuters
French far-right presidential candidate Marine le Pen concedes the election to centrist Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

I have long ago forgot the name of that once idyllic French village.

But I do remember it had a large bar-cum-bookie office, two big restaurants, a superb old fashioned hardware shop, a tobacconist/newsagent, a manly-looking barbershop, and a very large bakery.

But the thing about it was all of these businesses were closed and shuttered. The verdigris on the shutters and the weeds rampantly spreading in the guttering told us these had been closed for years.

The only functioning commerce was a small bar in the corner which opened for a few hours, four days per week. This plight of this village, a 40-minute drive from the scenic coastal town of St Brieuc, is replicated all across rural France as local farm economies struggle.

I had rented the house for a fortnight from an Englishman. Many of the houses in the once prosperous village square were holiday lets. The bulk of shopping was done in the Le Clerc hypermarket in St Brieuc which sold everything you could ever imagine - and many things you could not.

Clearly, that was more than a clue as to why all those village businesses had shut up shop. We have our share of this in every other village, and many strong market towns, across Ireland. The extent of this phenomenon in France is hopefully not a vision of our rural future here.

Seeing this level of desertification across many parts of France, I was not surprised that the Front National's Marine Le Pen had huge rural support. It is estimated that four out of 10 French farmers backed her in Sunday's presidential election.

Do not get me wrong here. I'm convinced that, from an Irish standpoint, the only positive outcome was a win for the Europhile, Emmanuel Macron. A win for Marine Le Pen would have called into question the continued existence of the European Union which is the cornerstone of Irish prosperity.

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True, the EU is very far from perfect, and it brings its own issues to Irish farming. But I rather shudder to think where we would be without it.

In the end, the centrist former Finance Minister, Emmanuel Macron won by a big margin of almost 2:1. He scored 66.1pc against Marine Le Pen's 33.9pc. Macron supporters had some grounds to call it a landslide.

Happily, M Macron in his acceptance speech avoided overtones of euphoria or complacency. He must have reckoned that many voters chose him merely as a way of saying "Non" to Le Pen.

Almost one in eight voters, over 4 million people, spoiled their ballots. Marine Le Pen netted close to 11 million votes, smashing the psychological 10-million barrier. The real point, having visited France during the campaign, was the clear evidence that her supporters are, by in large, more passionate than those of Emmanuel Macron.

The president-elect, who takes office next Sunday, tried a bit of reaching out to people in rural France and those in the further suburbs who feel totally disregarded. "I know the anger, anxiety, and doubts that many have expressed," he said minutes after exit polls declared him the victor.

The thing is we have seen all of this hope and brave new world stuff before. In May 2012, Macron's predecessor, Francois Hollande, had pledged to tackle unemployment and get the economy moving.

Soon M Hollande was the most unpopular president in French history. If, like Hollande, Macron bombs, Marine Le Pen will be waiting to go again.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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