By Edward Willis
In the first round of the French Elections, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen survived, earning the right to go once more unto the ballot box in May’s run-off second round. In fact, there was more than a whiff of the Hundred Years’ War among the whole process. Though the campaign, which will feature Macron’s nascent En Marche party, and Le Pen’s dynastic Front National, has been pitched as a break from France’s traditional politics, a glance at the first-round electoral map shows that not everything has changed.
Compare the first-place preferences of each department with the map of Plantagenet territory in France, and there is a striking similarity. With the exception of Paris and the Cote D’or, the belt of land voting for Macron is unerringly akin to the swathes of France once under the control of the Henry II.
Does this explain Western France’s greater receptivity to Macron’s pro-European, globalist ideas? Definitely not, but nevertheless it was an idea too tempting for belligerent brexiteer Daniel Hannan, who tweeted and then deleted his theory that the parts of France last under English rule had remained politically moderate. Of course, as the map actually suggests most of the last British holdings in France (Yes Calais we’re looking at you), actually voted Le Pen.
Hannan was joking, or wrong, or probably both, but nonetheless the map is striking in exposing a political divide among some of the most ancient of lines. Ignoring the Plantagenets, Western France has certainly been quicker to bend to the left than the east, even if the potential causes of this East-West fissure as are numerous as they are nebulous.
In the 500 years since the end of the Hundred Year’s War, Western France has been relatively stable, whilst the Eastern and Northeastern Borders have been in an almost constant state of flux, a cycle of expansion and incursion that traces a line from Henry IV’s wars against the dukes of Savoy to The Second World War, via Richelieu, the revolution and Napoleon. This history of back and forth, of Eastwards under Napoleon and then back under the terms of the Council of Vienna in 1815, of the Franco-Prussian war and the annexation and liberation of Alsace-Lorraine in the Second world war, is a more compelling explanation of Eastern France’s receptivity to messages of border security and national identity than any Angevin lineage. It is perhaps also why some of the most contested parts of France’s borders, around the Alps, and the Prussian Border, rallied most loyally to Napoleon’s side as he returned from Exile during the hundred days. Expansion into Italy and Prussia meant security for the East, and thus secured support among those who envisaged their own security as tied to Napoleon’s wars. His demise meant new wars, and new incursions into France’s flank. It is interesting to note here, that the Vendée uprising in the west of France objected not so much to the left-wing ideals of the revolutionary government as to the conscription of the population for the revolutionary wars – in other words they objected to being forced to fight external enemies who they saw no reason to vilify. Historically at least, the West of France was shielded from some of these border concerns. Now, five centuries later, with the exception of Grenoble, which continues to resist the far right, these are the same insecurities and areas upon which Le Pen is preying – fear of the other, strong borders and fierce leadership – a contrast to Macron’s politics of openness and globalisation. No matter that France’s East and North aren’t threatened or defended by grapeshot and trenches, Le Pen’s politics appeals to parts of France that have historically been more vulnerable to invasion.
Much more likely than any residual border memories however, is that Le Pen’s appeal, like that of fascists everywhere, is sharpest among less educated parts of the country struggling economically, and willing to scapegoat aliens rather than their own governments or inexorable geopolitical forces. Look at a map of the poverty rates in France and you will see the darkest circles clustered around the North, North East and also along the Mediterranean Coast to the South East. In other words, around the areas that voted for Le Pen.
Indeed, as in the UK and USA there is, if anything, an inverse correlation between immigration and votes for the far right. The most metropolitan areas of France, and especially Paris, largely scorned Le Pen’s rhetoric, reflecting both a day to day inoculation against the politics of division and hate, and also the fact that many of those immigrants turned out to vote against her in large numbers.
In cities, East-West divides are often caused by prevailing winds as often as anything else. A west to east wind that blew industrial fumes towards Eastern Berlin, was at the root of that city’s divide long before World War II and the wall. In Brussels, the prevailing wind, and so too the social divisions of the city, are reversed.
Why are we talking about wind? Because ultimately, it is as futile to argue that France is divided on Plantagenet lines as it is to theorise about the impact of a stiff breeze. Interestingly the wind theory is particularly invalid in France, because the geographical divide in Paris is the opposite of the rest of France – conservative to the West and liberal to the East. This split is arguably why the military monuments of Paris are found to the West, whilst the revolutionary sights are clustered in the East. Similarly when the barricades of 1848 went up, they were mainly found in the East, not the West of the city.
There is nothing to suggest that the similarities between Macron territory and Plantagenet France are anything other than coincidence and data trolling. Correlation is not causation, as the curious link between the number of people who drowned in swimming pools in the US and the number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in proves. After all, in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen won in areas most affected by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. For the roots of France’s electoral division look to education and income, not the houses of Anjou or Plantagenet.
Edward Willis writes on a number of topics, including history, politics, sport, literature, film and television. A History and French graduate from the University of Exeter, he currently works as a business manager for Sports Marketing Surveys Inc. He can be found as @ewgw28 on twitter or contacted on Edward.firstname.lastname@example.org
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