What ever happened to Pierre Poujade? The Spectator caught up to him in , almost fifty years after he led his enormous tax revolt in France.
The article briefly recapped his adult life: fleeing from the Nazis and joining the Free French forces, where the British Royal Air Force trained him as a pilot… then, after a stint doing door-to-door book sales, he “saved enough to open his own bookshop back home in Saint Cere, in the Lot department of South West France”:
There Poujadism was born, on . The dreaded tax inspectors were due, and those traders to be subjected to a control — a fearsome trawl through every last centime in their accounts — shivered in their back rooms. The discovery of the most piffling abuse or inadvertent error, and the victim would be “strangled, garrotted, ruined”. Poujade clutches his neck and feigns the agony involved.
Poujade was a member of the town council, and his communist adversary came puffing along on his bike. He was to be inspected. What was to be done? “Well,” said Poujade, “they’ll put you through the moulinette and it will be me next. We must leave our knives in the cloak-room and tackle this together.” And thus was organised the first show of resistance.
“I became the spokesman because even then I had the reputation of being a big mouth,” he chuckles. On inspection day he sounded the tocsin on the church bell, and the tax collectors arrived to find the whole village, including the curé, in the street. They filled the communist’s shop and refused to let him produce his accounts, even if he had wanted to.
“But,” cried the collectors, “l’administration [you have to have lived in France to understand the resonance of that octopoid being invoked against you] has decided that all the tax controls of the Lot will be done by the end of the month.”
“Tell the administration,” roared the 33-year-old Poujade, “that you have already finished. There will be no more controls.”
That first phase, he says now, ‘that was real Poujadism — everyone shoulder-to-shoulder.” They had ras-le-bol — which means they had had it up to there: the ras-le-bol factor, always present in French life, was the foundation of his movement, enabling him to lead the only meek and quiescent French class of small traders and businessmen to open revolt.
A year later Poujade could stalk the country end to end among nearly a million members of his Union for the Defence of Shopkeepers and Craftsmen. He made the wonky Fourth Republic government tremble and panic; he led a march on Paris and filled the Vélodrome d’Hiver, then the biggest arena in Paris with more than 20,000 seats, to overflowing for his speeches.
“If they don’t change the law, we’ll change the government” was the slogan, and the government believed it. Many concessions were granted, and, for a brief, heady time, the Poujadists held the administration in thrall. Préfets did nothing without consulting them, ministers would not visit a region without their permission.
“Of course,” he says staidly, “it could not last — it was a state within a state.” He could have led 10,000 armed war veterans down the Champs Elysées, but he seems to have had no real taste for grabbing power, preferring democracy. In the elections his movement won 53 seats and polled two and a half million votes.
“Poujadism is not a political party; it has no philosophy, no doctrine, no religious affiliation. It is a movement for economic survival by little people harassed by the fisc… all kinds of people — Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Protestants, atheists, communists, and populism, pure and simple. Nothing to do with Right or Left.”